Star of Bethlehem

Ornithogalum umbellatum
Poisonous
Family

Liliaceae (lilies); sometimes placed in the Asparagaceae or the Hyacinthaceae

Description

Flowers clustered at the tips of stems to 1 foot tall. The 3 sepals and 3 petals form an attractive star, often 3-cornered, white on the upper surface, with green lines on the underside. Blooms April-June. Leaves grasslike, very dark green, rolled inward with a white center vein. Rootstock: bulbs, produced at an amazing rate.

Size

Height: to 1 foot.

Habitat and conservation

Found in a variety of situations, including pastures, bottomland and upland forests, roadsides, suburban lawns, and disturbed areas. It is becoming relatively common on gravel bars and alluvial soils along many of our streams and rivers. A native of Europe and an aggressive colonizer, it forms dense clumps of bulbs.

image of Star of Bethlehem distribution map
Distribution in Missouri

Statewide.

Status

Also called star-of-Bethlehem (with hyphens), grass lily and many other names across its global range. Botanists have long been debating the relationships among the plants traditionally considered "lilies." In light of new molecular evidence, it is likely this plant will be placed in a family called the Asparagaceae, named for the asparagus genus. Some botanists have put it in the Hyacinthaceae, the hyacinth family. A more conservative approach keeps it in the lily family, the Liliaceae.

Human connections

All parts of this plant are poisonous to both humans and to animals. Don't confuse this plant with wild onion. Originally introduced to North America as an ornamental, it easily escapes cultivation, and it is often viewed as a lawn weed.

Ecosystem connections

This plant was known to have escaped cultivation in Missouri as early as the 1830s. In our state, it apparently can’t reproduce by seed, but it does spread by bulb division. Water floats the bulbs in streams, and people accidentally transplant them when they move soil.