Gagea pratensis

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Yellow Star of Bethlehem

Gagea lutea

  • Written also: Yellow Star-of-Bethlehem
  • Family: Lily Family – Liliaceae
  • Growing form: Perennial herb. Bulb solitary.
  • Height: 10–20 cm (4–8 in.). Stem unbranched.
  • Flower: Perianth regular (actinomorphic), yellow, outside greenish, approx. 2–3 cm (0.8–1.2 in.) wide. Tepals 6 in 2 similar whorls, blunt-tipped, glabrous. Stamens 6. Pistil of 3 fused carpels, stigma green. Inflorescence a 1–7-flowered umbel.
  • Leaves: Basal leaves 1(–2), stalk short. Blade 5–10 mm (0.2–0.4 in.) wide, linear, grooved, bow-tipped, with entire margins, glabrous, parallel-veined, dark green–bluish green. Base of inflorescence usually with 2 leaf-like subtending bracts.
  • Fruit: Bristly, loculicidal (3-parted), thin-walled capsule.
  • Habitat: Broad-leaved forests, coppices, forest margins, hedgerows, gardens, parks, lawns.
  • Flowering time: April–May.

Yellow Star of Bethlehem flowers at the end of April already, and is usually the first plant in broad-leaved forests to do so, before hepatica. It goes through its above-ground life cycle in two or three weeks and already by the end of June it is safe underground waiting for the following spring. 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.

Yellow star of Bethlehem is native to rich broad-leaved forests and river banks. It has also moved to meadow clearings and with earth or on purpose to lawns in parks and gardens. It produces a moderate amount of seed which have elaiosomes to attract ants. It also spreads vegetatively through the small lateral bulbils that form in the axils of the bulb. Thus the species can form wide, dense stands.

The most common relative that grows in Finland is least gagea (G. minima), which is easy to tell apart from larger cousins by its basal leaves, which are just a few millimetres wide. Underground it has two bulbs in a single skin.

Meadow Gagea

Gagea pratensis

Yellow star of Bethlehem is quite rare in Finland, but meadow gagea, which it resembles, is even rarer. It has 2–3 bulbils, narrower and bluer leaves, larger flowers with tapering tepals and a yellow stigma. This southern European species is only known to grow wild in three places in Finland: Hanko, Sipoo and Helsinki.

Other species from the same genus
Other species from the same family

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