Or, more to the point . . . Just because it’s pretty doesn’t mean it’s nice.
by Joyce Hylton, Extension Master Gardener
Photos © Joyce Hylton
A few years ago, several lovely white flowers appeared in multiple places in my lawn. Closer inspection revealed it was the flower of Ornithogalum umbellatum, the Star-of-Bethlehem (SoB). Alas, my next-door neighbor had planted some several years ago in the space between our houses. Over the next few days (with my neighbor’s permission) I spent hours digging out bulbs, filling a 3-gallon pail which I then dumped in the trash (NEVER compost it). I have done this over several years but other than getting some exercise and enjoying the fresh air, I’m not certain that my efforts have made much difference.
According to one website, O. umbellatum sounds perfect! It can be grown in full sunlight to part shade. Not only that, “… it also tolerates summer drought, requiring moisture only during growing season. It is great for use in beds, borders, as ground covers, in rock gardens, and in woodland gardens.” The bulbs are easily available for purchase. In fact, a local grocery store sold a cultivar that had lovely orange/flame-colored flowers. However, please remember that just because it’s pretty doesn’t mean it’s nice.
Unfortunately, SoBs naturalize easily and are becoming a real NUISANCE. They reproduce by seed and bulblets with most of the reproduction by the latter. However, whether via seed, transplanting, or moving dirt from one site to another, this weed/flower is gradually expanding its territory. Beyond its nuisance appearance in your lawn or garden, agriculturally, it is a significant emerging weed problem.
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O. umbellatum contains cardiotoxins and glycosides that are toxic to humans and horses and other livestock. It appears on all lists of plants poisonous to livestock. The entire plant contains these toxins, but the bulbs and flowers contain the highest concentrations. The plant (including bulbs) is poisonous if ingested.
Sadly, SoBs are not easily eliminated, much less controlled. These tenacious plants resist most herbicides. Table 5.9 from Virginia Tech’s Pest Management Guide lists 5 common chemical combinations found in most commercially available herbicides. It then lists many broadleaf weeds as well as the effectiveness of each product on control of the weeds. You will note that none of these work for SoB. One agricultural site acknowledged that while several herbicides provided good “burndown” impact on SoB, only Gramoxone Max (a big gun for use by professionals) resulted in a reduced population the following spring. Research studies at Purdue University found that paraquat provided 70 to 78% control, and the active ingredient of Gramoxone Max is paraquat; however, even it will not eliminate this weed.
Please discourage the use of SoBs – there are much better and safer choices for our gardens.
- Ornithogalum umbellatum. North Carolina State Extension. North Carolina State University.
- Star-of-Bethlehem (Ornithogalum umbellatum L.). 2014. Southern Illinois University Weed Research Annual Reports.
- Witt, William, W. 2013. Weed of the Month: Star-of-Bethlehem. College of Agriculture, Food And Environment. University of Kentucky.