Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Star Of Bethlehem: Flower of the Virgin's Child

"Ah me!" the lonely stranger said,
"The hope which led my footsteps on,
And light from heaven around them shed,
O'er weary wave and waste, is gone!

..."And what am I, o'er such a land
The banner of the Cross to bear?
Dear Lord, uphold me with Thy hand,
Thy strength with human weakness share!"

He ceased; for at his very feet
In mild rebuke a floweret smiled;
How thrilled his sinking heart to greet
The Star-flower of the Virgin's child!

In poetic verse, John Greenleaf Whittier told the story of a Christian missionary wearied and discouraged in his efforts to carry the Gospel to Iran.  But upon seeing a flower known as Star Of Bethlehem at his feet, he was heartened to carry on his very difficult work.

Readers during the Victorian era were very romantic in their outlook, as their art attests.  That a flower might suggest the "star in the east" to a weary evangelist and encourage him seems far-fetched to cynical moderns.  We would be more inclined to accept its botanical name, Ornithogalum (pronounced or-ni-THOG-al-um), which means "bird milk". ("Bird milk", also known as "crop milk", is supposed to allude to the color of the flowers.) But we gardeners will tend to appreciate the symbolism of the Natal Star since we are hopeless romantics.

The genus, Ornithogalum, is a member of the Hyacinthaceae family and consists of about twenty species.  Flowers are white, except for O. dubium which produces orange and yellow ones.  Different species are native to southern Europe, north Africa and South Africa. Though generally hardy in USDA climate zones 8 to 11, they are effective in container gardens in cooler regions.  Where they may be grown outdoors over winter, they are excellent for bulb gardens, perennial gardens and borders, and naturalizing.  They are superb for cutting, lasting a couple of weeks or more in flower arrangements.

Ornithogalums require little attention.  Plant them in spring in full sun to partial shade and in average, well-drained garden soil. Recommended pH is from 6.1 to 7.8.

Fragrant flowers appear in late spring to mid-summer.  After blooming the leaves will eventually turn brown. Allow the leaves to turn brown before removing them.  Early removal of foliage prevents the bulbs from storing reserves for the following year.

Before planting, take a sample of your garden soil to your local Cooperative Extension Service office.  For a small fee, they will send it to a lab for analysis and return a report to you.  Your soil sample report will include recommendations for amending the soil.  Follow them.

Unless you are naturalizing them in the lawn, prepare the planting bed by cultivating at least 8" deep, removing all traces of weeds.  A good practice is to mix 5 tablespoons of 10-10-10 fertilizer and 2 cups of bone meal per ten square feet area of bulb garden.  Don't let synthetic fertilizer come into direct contact with plants.

Plant Ornithogalum bulbs about 3 inches deep and 6 inches apart in spring.  Depth is measured to the bottom of the hole.

By the way, the bulbs look like little onions.  One species, O. longibracteatum, is called Pregnant Onion or False Sea Onion.  But don't let the resemblance fool you.  Though some species are edible, others contain a heart-stopping steroid called cardenolide.  Don't eat any of them.

As gardeners, we know how flowers lift our spirits.  We don't mind the work because the rewards are so great.  Plant Star Of Bethlehem bulbs and you'll be heartened when they bloom.

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