Once upon a time, a new grass appeared in the yard. At first, I thought the narrow leaves were wild onion, but they didn’t taste oniony. They didn’t look oniony, either, not on closer inspection: each wore a silvery line down the middle of the green.
Later, when these mystery leaves began to yellow, a flower stalk emerged. It was staggered with green and white striped buds. Exquisite! Then, the buds bloomed into white, six-petaled flowers even more exquisite.
It was Ornithogalum umbellatum L.: Star of Bethlehem.
I hate it.
I didn’t hate it then, because it made a sweet nosegay in a shot glass, but I hate it now because that one clump has taken over, co-opted, replaced a large percentage of the yard. I’ve tried to stem the flow. For years, I’ve snipped every flower to prevent seed production, but the bulbs manage to spread. And spread and spread. How? How can a tiny bulb shimmy twelve inches to the left and start a new community?
Apparently, this is what has happened because these damn things are everywhere. They are displacing my native spring beauties and Philadelphia fleabane, they are hogging the sedges. I even resent them taking space formerly allotted to the European yard weeds most people despise, because those drifts of chickweed, clover, deadnettle, and so on can feed pollinators.
Two weeks ago, my boy and I hand-pulled Star of Bethlehem after a soaking rain, but only about half the clumps rose out of the ground entire. The other half are just minus their foliage. The bulbs remain in situ, bald, but planning another satellite community a few inches away. And another, and another.
We ended up with two red wagons full of clumps, and it kills me to see my good, chocolate-brown dirt held prisoner by those white bulbs. If I massage the dirt free, I am bound to overlook a bulb or two or forty, and then when I dump the soil back in the yard I am basically seeding the lawn for Star of Bethlehem. If I let the clumps soak in a whiskey barrel of water and then strain the water for bulbs, I miss the bulbs that sink and submerge themselves in the silt. If I compost the bulbs, I create a dedicated garden bed of Stars. If I bag them for the city’s compost, ditto, but farther away.
What to do? The idea of putting those things with my lovely, rich soil in a Hefty bag for the landfill is too awful to consider.
So, the final heaped wagon sits and sits with its load of dirt and bulbs. Already there are hackberry seedlings sprouting on top. I need to figure this out.
Star of Bethlehem is “rare and endangered” in its native range (the Mediterranean), but in the U.S. it is invasive: a total thug that makes my wildflowers rare and endangered…
This is one reason why native matters: plants evolve in a Place, but when we move them to another Place, the ecosystem freaks out.
And so do I.
I take some comfort in learning I am not alone in my battle against this twinkling thug. The internet assures me that “persistent, manual digging” is the only method with even a prayer of success. However, the internet does not present an acceptable method of destroying the bulbs. I won’t do herbicides, but I can tell you black walnut water has no effect.
By the way, Bach’s Flower Essences—do you know these? You do if you shop at Whole Body—include Star of Bethlehem. And the funny thing is that the “essence” of Star of Bethlehem is listed as a remedy “for those in great distress under conditions which for a time produce great unhappiness.” Well, for the time Star of Bethlehem is visible in my yard, I am in great distress. And there is only one remedy: to be bulbless. Without bulbs. Completely bulb-free.
P.S. Star of Bethlehem is toxic. It is a dangerous look-alike to wild onion in leaf and bulb. So don’t eat it or let your pet eat it.
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Joanna Brichetto is a naturalist and writer in Nashville, the hackberry-tree capital of the world.
She writes about everyday natural wonders amid every habitat loss, and her essays have appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Fourth Genre, Hippocampus, The Hopper, Flyway, The Common, City Creatures, The Fourth River and other journals.