Star of Bethlehem (Ornithogalum umbellatum)
Star of Bethlehem, the remedy for shock, is made by the boiling method.
Common star of Bethlehem (Ornithogalum umbellatum), along with other members of the genus, is sometimes grown as an ornamental plant. The plant’s white, star-shaped flowers close at night and open only when there is sunshine, remaining closed on cloudy days – this is reflected in some of its common names like nap-at-noon, eleven-o’clock lady and sleepy dick.
Another name, dove’s dung, was used by the Arabs who sometimes ate the bulbs as a vegetable. Bulbs of the plant, also known as white field onion, were also sometimes eaten raw or cooked in the UK. However, large quantities can be poisonous both to grazing animals and to humans. Bulbs can also cause dermatitis on contact with the skin of sensitive people. A homoeopathic remedy was made from the bulbs to treat some types of cancer.
The only truly native species in the UK is Ornithogalum pyrenaicum or Pyrenees star of Bethlehem. This grew abundantly in woods near Bath where the young, unexpanded shoots were cooked and served like asparagus – a common name for this plant is Bath asparagus.
Common star of Bethlehem (Ornithogalum umbellatum), along with other European species of the genus, contain cardiac glycosides and extracts of the bulbs have a similar effect on the heart as extract of foxgloves (digitalis) does. Specifically, this is to slow down the heart rate and strengthen the beats. Comparison of the extract with one of the active compounds found in digitalis, known as digitoxin, showed it caused less slowing of the heart, a greater diuretic effect and less gastrointestinal nausea. The major active compound in the extract is convallatoxin, although fifteen other cardenolides have also been isolated. Convallatoxin has also shown activity against one type of human cancer. All parts of the plant contain cardiac glycosides but these are most concentrated in the bulbs.
The genus name comes from the Greek words ‘ornis‘ meaning bird and ‘gala‘ meaning milk, in reference to the white flowers. ‘Bird’s Milk’ was frequently used by the Romans to indicate something wonderful.
Extracts from the bulbs of Ornithogalum thyrsoides, which is common in South Africa, was shown to be active against leukaemia. One traditional use was of an infusion of the leaves to treat type-I diabetes. The Afrikaans vernacular name of the plant is tjienkerientjee, a simulation of the chink sound made when fresh stalks are rubbed against one another by the wind. In English, this is translated as Chincherinchee.
In Christian folklore it is said that Ornithogalum arabicum, star of Bethlehem, first appeared on the earth on the night of Christ’s birth. According to the legend, the star that led the three wise men to Bethlehem burst into thousands of fragments after it had stopped at its destination. These bright fragments which fell to the ground were transformed into flowers, to indicate the holiness of the area.