Star of Bethlehem

Medical Herbs Catalogue


Star of Bethlehem

Botanical Name: Ornithogalum umbellatum (LINN.)
Family: N.O. Liliaceae

Synonyms: Bath Asparagus. Dove's Dung. Star of Hungary. White Filde Onyon.
Part Used: Bulb.

The Star of Bethlehem is a bulbous plant nearly allied to the Onion and Garlic.

The leaves are long and narrow and darkgreen; the flowers, in bloom during April and May, are a brilliant white internally, but with the petals striped with green outside. They expand only in the sunshine.

The bulbs, in common with those of many Liliaceous plants, are edible and nutritious. They were in ancient times eaten, both raw and cooked, as Dioscorides related, and form a palatable and wholesome food when boiled. They are still often eaten in the East, being roasted like chestnuts, and Linnaeus and others considered that they were probably the 'Dove's Dung' mentioned in the Second Book of Kings, vi. 25, as being sold at a high price during the siege of Samaria by the King of Syria, when 'the fourth part of a cab of dove's dung was sold for five pieces of silver.' The Greek name, Ornithogalum, signifies the 'birds' milk flower.' The plains of Syria and Palestine are sheeted in spring with the white flowers of a species of Star of Bethlehem, the bulbs of which are used as food, and are still called by the Arabs, 'Dove's Dung,' a name in common use among them for vegetable substances. Bochart tells us that the Arabs give this name to a moss that grows on trees and stony ground, and also to a pulse or pea, which appears to have been common in India. Large quantities of the bulb, it is stated, were parched and dried and stored at Cairo and Damascus, being much used during journeys, and especially by the great pilgrim caravans to Mecca.

In Lyte's Dodoens (1578) it is described as 'the white filde onyon,' growing in plenty near Malines. In Turner's Herbal (1548) it is not mentioned, but in Gerard's six species are enumerated. He says: 'There be sundry sorts of wild field Onions, called "Starres of Bethlehem," differing in stature, taste and smell, as shall be declared,' and calls them 'the Star of Hungary,' 'the Lesser Spanish Star,' 'the Star of Bethlehem,' 'the great Arabische star floure,' etc.

Though there are numerous species in this genus, only one is truly native to Great Britain, the spiked Ornithogalum, O. pyrenaicum (Linn.), and is not common, being a local plant, found only in a few counties. It is abundant, however, in woods near Bath, and the unexpanded inflorescence used to be collected and sold in that town under the name of 'Bath Asparagus,' and was cooked and served as a vegetable.

A leafless stalk, about 2 feet high, rises from the bulb, bearing greenish-white flowers in a long, erect spike.

(The homoeopaths make a tincture from the bulbs which is useful in some cases of cancer. - EDITOR.)

Other Species:
O. divaricatum (Lindl.) is the CALIFORNIAN SOAPROOT, Soap Bulb, Soap Apple or Amole.Its large bulb, resembling that of Squill, is universally used by the Indians of the regions where it grows as a detergent and as a fish poison. It has other uses dependent upon the action of its Saponin, and it is an emeticocathartic poison.

O. thyroides (Jacq.), of South Africa, is a fatal stock poison.

O. Capense (Linn.), also of South Africa, yields a tuber used as an emmenagogue: the action is due to saponin.

Over the deserts of the south-western United States and Mexico, the tuberous rhizomes of large species of Yucca (also belonging to the order Liliaceae) are called Soap Root, and have the same uses as those of the Californian variety of Ornithogalum. There is said to be no better tonic or stimulant for the hair than a free application of a solution of this juice in alcohol, water, or glycerine. Besides the Saponin, it contains a large number of raphides, which probably add mechanically to the stimulation.

Yucca filamentosa (Linn.), of the southeastern United States, commonly known as 'Adam's Needle,' has a large rhizome which contains nearly 2 per cent of Saponin, and which is used as a stimulant owing to the action of this constituent.

Gagea lutea (Ker Gawl.), the YELLOW STAR OF BETHLEHEM, has a small, egg-shaped or nearly round bulb, about the size of a large pea.

It flowers from March to May, and is a plant 6 to 10 inches high, with narrow leaves and yellow flowers (arranged in an umbel), which only open in the middle of the day. It occurs in woods and pastures in this country, but is not common.

It is recorded that the Swedes have eaten this bulb in times of scarcity. Round the main small bulb there are usually a number of bulbules about the size of sago grains, but only the parent bulb is enclosed in a yellowish outer skin.

Some species of Gagea have been used as diuretics, much like Squill, and probably contain related, if not identical, substances.

The tuberous root-stock of Melanthium Virginicum (Linn.), the Bunch Flower of the eastern and central United States, is poisonous and is used as a parasticide.