Friday, 25 March 2016

Yellow Star-of Bethlehem (Gagea lutea)

The Gagea genus, which belongs to the Lily family is large, with at least 100 species spread mainly throughout Eurasia.  Any trip to Spanish mountains for example, is bound to throw up a few species but they are very difficult to tell apart.   We do not have that problem in the Britain because we only have three species and unless one is on Stanner rocks in Radnorshire (Gagea bohemica) or on Snowdon (Gagea serotina) then it must be Gagea lutea, Yellow Star-of-Bethlehem.   G Claridge Druce in his Flora of Oxfordshire states that the plant was recorded by Sir Joseph Banks in 1760, as Ornithogallum luteum.  The common name of Ornithogallum is 'Star of Bethlehem', and they are usually white, so clearly this is why it was known as the Yellow Star of Bethlehem, that is, a yellow member of the Ornithogallum genus.   (But then I have no idea why Ornithogallum species are called Star of Bethlehem!).

Its status is scarce and local; Oxfordshire has a few locations but yesterday on a short exploration along the River Dorn I found two colonies, one where Gagea lutea was the dominant plant in a 15 x 20 metre patch under mature hazel, on a damp calcareous slope.    It is notorious in producing few flowers, and in the patch I found no more than 5 to 10% of the plants had any flowers.   The same is true for Gagea Bohemica; lots of plants but very few flowers.

Bluebells were just beginning to flower.   I thought at first plants I found in a small copse were hybrids between the 'proper' bluebell and the Spanish invader (Hyacinthoides hispanica) because the flowers did not have the characteristic droop. Instead the top flowers were erect but on checking they were indeed Hyacinthoides non-scripta - leaves 14mm wide, corolla parallel sided and the three outer stamens (sadly some destructive testing to find out) attached to the corolla wall for most of their length (using Stace to key out the plant).

In all I made a list of around 40 plants among which was Moschatel (Adoxa moschatellina), for which there are only a modest number of records in the county.

In the last 15 years otters have spread to every river in Oxfordshire.   Back in the late 1990's I found spraint on the Evenlode, but the find was treated with considerable suspicion.   That has all changed; Though I have yet to see an animal on a lowland river but I did find on the Dorn fresh spraint, no more than a few hours old because it was gelatinous with the appearance of black tar.


The distribution maps (post 2010) records taken from the BSBI database for both Gagea lutea and Adoxa moschatellina are shown below.   The absences are perhaps more interesting than the locations.  For instance, why are neither found in Ireland (bar one record)?
Adoxa moschatellina post 2010 from BSBI database

Gagea lutea post 2010 from BSBI database


  1. It is a while since I have seen G. lutea - always a pleasure. Nice photos! Actually it is a while since I have seen Adoxa too. Neither feature in NW Scotland.Best, Stephen

    1. Very hard to see a pattern in the distribution of both Gagea and Adoxa. There are records for both in the north east of Scotland, but they are absent from the Highlands. I suppose it is just possible that Adoxa might be on the limestone on the eastern side of Raasay but I am sure you would have found it! Oddly barring one record both are absent from Ireland, so are both partial to cold winters? I have updated the blog with distribution maps (post 2010) for both species.