Botanical Star-of-Bethlehem

Star-of-Bethlehem, Ornithogalum umbellatum Tci, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The Star of Bethlehem has been in the news again this Christmas. The bright star led the three Wise Men to Jesus’s birthplace. In the botanical world, the Star-of-Bethlehem is the name of a number of plants in the Ornithogalum genus.

Star Flower

Ornithogalum‘s type species is Ornithogalum umbellatum. Unfortunately, it flowers between April and June rather than during Advent. Nonetheless, the flower is beautifully and markedly star-shaped as befits its common name. Its leaves are grass-like. The genus was previously classified in the Liliaceae or Lily family, but is now a member of the enormously varied Asparagaceae or Asparagus family.

Amazing Bird’s Milk?

The Latin genus name originates from the Ancient Greek words ὀρνίθων γάλα – ornithos means bird and gala means milk. The reference to milk is easy to understand as it picks up the flower’s white colour. Bird’s milk immediately strikes us as odd. It is meant to do so. An Ancient Greek proverb saw bird’s milk as something so rare that it is amazing, exceptional and the best. The concept continues in modern Greek, including in advertising. Star-of Bethlehem is certainly an amazingly beautiful flower as well as relating to a miraculous celestial event described in the Bible.

Star-of-Bethlehem, Ornithogalum, in Cornwall in 2018. © Karen Andrews

Yellow Star

The Yellow Star-of-Bethlehem was originally classified as a species of Ornithogalum. It now bears the name Gagea lutea and remains in the Liliaceae or Lily family. The genus is named after the English botanist, Sir Thomas Gage (1791-1820). Lutea describes the bright yellow colour. It is another amazingly beautiful, star-shaped flower, although unfortunately again, it does not flower at Christmas. It is native to Britain and flowers between March and May instead.

Yellow Star-of-Bethlehem, Gagea lutea. CC via

Conjunction of Planets

Astronomers have long sought to explain the miraculous star in the sky. There are a number of theories. Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) thought that the Star of Bethlehem was a triple conjunction of Jupiter, Saturn and the Sun. A conjunction of Venus and Jupiter occurred in 2BC and is now believed by Biblical scholars to coincide with Jesus’s birth. The comet theory has fallen out of favour, especially as it was understood as a bad omen.

This Advent, on 21st December, we saw a conjunction of the two planets, Jupiter and Saturn. The first since 1226. Such a rare occurrence looks like a miraculous star in the sky. It is just such an amazing event that gave our Advent star flowers their common names.

The Ornithogalum genus is a symbol for baby Jesus. It also represents innocence, hope, trust and honesty. A fittingly hopeful flower to end this 2020 Advent Botany Calendar as we look forward to 2021.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

The three Wise Men, kings or Magi following the Star of Bethlehem. OpenClipart-Vectors CC via Pixabay

References and Further Reading

Copyright Note

Karen does not seek or receive any commercial interest or advantage from this blog. She is not promoting any business venture. She simply loves to share fascinating facts about plants. These pages illustrate her love of plants, botany, biodiversity, gardens and creative expression. There is always so much to learn about plant diversity. This blog is designed as a showcase for photography, commentary on plants and wildlife, gardens and other places visited, horticulture and related topics. Viewpoints are her own, not those of her employer.

© Karen Andrews 2018 onwards. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Andrews and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

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