Yellow Star of Bethlehem; Gagea lutea

Yellow Star of Bethlehem seems to be one of those iconic species that enthusiasts of a genre have to see…. it is like the Resplendent Quetzal  an amazing bird that I was told induces some bird watchers to tears when they eventually see one.  Well I was quite pleased to sit and watch one several years ago in Costa Rica,  chewing away on a wild avocado and I also was very happy to eventually make the acquaintance of a few Yellow Star of Bethlehem plants.  However neither managed to induce tears… maybe I am too hard hearted.Gagea lutea

This little plant is quite rare and it also has the odd property of flowering quite well  some years and then just producing leaves for the next few years. Rather like some orchids.  The plant flowers early in the year, late March into April, The photos here were taken on 10th April 2018, however Spring of 2018 was quite late in arriving and there had been several cold spells with lots of snow to slow things up. So in a normal year I suspect they will flower a week or so earlier.

I eventually met up with this rarity in a small reserve in Warwickshire where you need permission to visit. This was obtained and I had my email from the warden with me on my arrival. I luckily met up with three other naturalists who were just leaving as I arrived. They had spent two hours searching for the said iconic species and had fortunately found some just before they left. They also very generously told me exactly where to see them, so I did  not need to spend hours searching….. just as well because I had wife and two grandchildren waiting in the car!

The local Naturalist Trust had marked where the individual plants were growing, which did make spotting them somewhat easier also prevented you treading on them although one of the conditions of being granted permission to visit was that you stuck to the paths.

In the photo below you can see how insignificant these plants look. Leaves like bluebells, which there were lots of and flowers that from a distance looked a bit like Lesser Cellandine, which was also growing in the vicinity. 

Previously I had visited several other woodlands in the Cotswold’s to search for this plant but whilst the areas were interesting I had not had any luck with the Yellow Star of Bethlehem’s.

It seems that this plant prefers coppiced woodland which is on alkaline soil and also quite wet, close to streams and rivers. It can be found in a band up through the centre of England and into southern Scotland with another small area in East Anglia.

It is in the Lilly family and related to Martagon Lily and Wild Tulip, also both species that wild flower nerds get hot sweats about. As such it has six tepals, which are yellow with a hint of green, you can sometimes see a slight green line running down the centre of the petal, but not really visible in the ones I photographed.     Another diagnostic characteristic is that the leaves which look quite similar to Bluebells are folded into a hooded tip, unlike bluebells. However the ones in the wood I visited all seemed to have the ends of their leaves nipped off. What had caused this I was not sure, possibly cold and very low temperatures earlier in the year or maybe slugs… who knows. Also most of the flower heads only had one or two flowers on and then maybe two or three stalks that ended in nothing. So no developing seed pods.. Again I do not know why, maybe slugs and snails.

Luckily this plant is a lily and has bulbs in the soil, so is not that reliant on seed production. It has been used in the past as human food: its bulb is edible in emergencies. It has a lot of starch and can be eaten boiled, dried, soaked or milled into flour.

Also the seeds when they are produced have  elaiosomes to attract ants. It also spreads vegetatively through the small lateral bulbils that form in the axils of the bulb.

Update; 2020 I visited a place in Gloucestershire; Canal Tunnel Inn on 3rd of March and saw a nice little patch of these and one was in flower and several more were on the way. This is a known site for this rarity and it has the advantage of a easy parking and a good pub close by. I was told by a local that this was the first time for about 10 years that there was any water in the canal. However to me it looked like there were quite a few aquatic plants in the water so that poses a problem. Here is a slide show from my visit.

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5 thoughts on “Yellow Star of Bethlehem; Gagea lutea

  1. Dear Sir.
    I know of two place’s where the Yellow-Star of Bethlehem are growing in an abundance if you are interested, they grow in area of woodland if you would like to see them and I also know of two place’s where the Martagon Lily grows, I thought you would like to see them for self.


    1. Yes I would like to see them ‘growing in abundance’ where I photographed these a few days ago there were only a few in flower maybe 6.


    2. I have photos of Martagon Lily from the Wye valley but again would like to get more photos this year.


  2. I’m glad you found it at last!


    1. Yes I too was pleased, now its on to the next ones on my hit list. Wild Tulip in a couple of weeks time.

      Liked by 1 person

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