Never Assume

Every year I see this garden escapee along the Billy Goat C trail, and every year I think “yep – Muscari armeniacum“, because I know that plant from many years of gardening.

But, I’m always fact-checking (or second-guessing) myself, so I looked up M. armeniacum, just to be sure. Imagine my surprise when multiple authorities show it present in North America, but nowhere near the Mid-Atlantic.


The same authorities show two other Muscari species, M. botryoides and M. neglectum, in the Maryland piedmont, so I checked Weakley’s Flora, and believe this to be M. neglectum. Unless it’s one of the cultivars. I think for the purposes of this blog, it’s good enough to say it’s a Muscari.

There are numerous Muscari species and cultivars in the nursery trade, all of which go by variants of the common name grape hyacinth. Previously placed in the Liliaceae, they’re now listed in the Asparagaceae. They’re easily grown bulb-forming perennials that bloom early and spread nicely in the garden, which is why they’re a problem: they naturalize a little too well.

Populations of the various Muscari are now established in much of the US, excluding the Great Plains and the mountainous and desert regions of the West. I haven’t found any official listing of it as invasive other than in Tennessee, but that may be a matter of time.

The long, grass-like leaves in these pictures belong to the grape hyacinth; it’s growing in a patch of golden ragwort, which has the heart-shaped leaves.

Two Showy Aliens

So far this year I’ve noted about twenty alien wildflower species blooming in the Piedmont. Checking through old records, I see that nearly one in four wildflowers I’ve found has been alien. It’s a depressing statistic.

Like the natives, these alien wildflowers run the gamut from tiny and inconspicuous to large and showy. The latter are usually garden escapees, of course – naturalized species originally planted for their ornamental qualities.

Of these, the two star-of-Bethlehem species, Ornithogalum umbellatum and O. nutans, might be the showiest. They are classified in either the Liliaceae or Asparagaceae, depending on which authority you consult.

O. umbellatum, common star-of-Bethlehem or nap-at-noon, is a bulb-forming perennial native to Eurasia, with a typical monocot look: the white-striped, dark green leaves are basal, long, and narrow, so that before flowering the plant looks like a clump of grass. The bright white flowers have six tepals with green stripes on the bottoms, and six stamens; the inflorescence is a corymb. It really is a handsome plant. I used to see it fairly often along the Billy Goat trails, but haven’t in the past few years, so I only have this old iPhone photo of the flowers to show.

Common star-of-Bethlehem is found in all but three Maryland counties, and is widespread in North America, occurring in all areas except parts of the mountainous west, and in much of Canada as well. It’s considered a class C noxious weed in Alabama and potentially invasive, not banned in Connecticut.

The second species, O. nutans (nodding star-of-Bethlehem), I see more of every year, even though it’s not quite as widespread in Maryland or North America. The leaves are similar to those of O. umbellatum, but are somewhat succulent with more pronounced parallel veins. The flowers are white, but a bit dull-looking, with a silvery-gray cast, and they’re borne on racemes rather than corymbs. Standing at almost two feet high, O. nutans is rather larger than O. umbellatum, and more easily spotted at a distance. The species is considered invasive in the mid-Atlantic.


nodding star-of-Bethlehem growing with golden ragwort and wild blue phlox along Billy Goat C

Lily Hunting

On March 13, when “Ephemeral” posted on this blog, I was on my way to California to see a super bloom of wildflowers in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Unusually heavy autumn and winter rains, along with cooler than normal temperatures, allowed the growth and flowering of perennials and desert ephemerals in quantities that have been called “unprecedented.”

It was spectacular.

The trip was put together in a big hurry, and not knowing if I would hit the peak bloom or be too late, I tried not to have any goals. “Just be grateful you get to go, and enjoy whatever you find,” I told myself. “No disappointments. No regrets.”

But a little voice inside me kept whispering “…except for desert lily. You really have to find desert lily.” I admit, I enjoy the hunt.

So on my second day in Borrego Springs, sipping an horchata and trying not to wilt while the temperature climbed to 97°F, I drove slowly along an almost traffic-free Big Horn Road, looking for glimpses of silver. Fifty yards or so west of Borrego Springs Road I saw it.

This beautiful plant is a perennial, with a growing season of six to ten months. A deep-set bulb produces a few long, narrow, wavy leaves and a single stem with a dozen flowers or more; the whole plant stands as tall as eighteen inches. Its range is limited to western Arizona, southern Nevada, and southeastern California, in the Sonoran and Mohave deserts.

According to older sources, Hesperocallis undulata is in the Liliaceae; later work by the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group put it in its own family, then into the Asparagaceae. Other sources placed it in the Agavaceae. If you search on-line you’ll see it listed in any of these families, but as far as I can tell the most current placement is Asparagaceae. I have no idea why classifying this species has been so difficult.


For this and upcoming posts about Sonoran Desert wildflowers, I’ve relied on the following resources:
San Diego County Native Plants (James Lightner, 3rd edition 2011)
Calflora and CalPhotos
Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association
Desert USA