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.
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.
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.
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.
References and Further Reading
- Carter, Jamie (2020): What This Week’s Impossibly Rare ‘Christmas Star’ On The Solstice Tells Us About The ‘Star Of Bethlehem. Forbes. 16 December 2020
- Payne, Martha J. (2017): “The Milk of Birds”: A Proverbial Phrase, Ancient and Modern, and its Link to Nature. Athens Journal of Philology – Volume 4, Issue 2 – Pages 95-110. June 2017
- Sawer, Patrick (2020): Has the star of Bethlehem returned? How to watch the great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn tonight. The Telegraph. 21 December 2020.
- Streeter, David et al. (2016). Collins Wild Flower Guide. 2nd Edition. The Most Complete Guide to the Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland. William Collins. London.
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