If you go down to the woods and lanes around Great Chalfield you may (if you know what you’re looking for because it’s not a particularly showy plant) find an upright slender stem (or ‘spike’) rising out of the docks, grasses, and Red Campions etc. Reaching almost a metre high, a few weeks ago these almost translucent, pale green slender columns supported a pyramid of unwrapped buds which at first glance look like asparagus heads.
Spiked Star of Bethlehem, 04 June 2012
Around mid June though this hitherto unassuming plant transforms into a flower of subtle beauty as the pale, six-petalled flowers of the Spiked Star-of-Bethlehem Ornithogalum pyrenaicum open and are revealed.
Spiked Star of Bethlehem, 18 June 2012
Opinion is divided whether the Spiked Star-of Bethlehem, or Bath asparagus as it’s more commonly known in these parts, is native to Britain or was brought here by the Romans as an easily grown foodplant. Ornithogalum is not related to the asparagus we all know and love (it’s actually a relative of the lilies), but the unopened heads can be cooked in much the same way as Asparagus, and its UK distribution, centred on south-facing slopes in and around Bath and commonly growing where Roman vineyards once stood, seems to support the latter theory.
First formally listed by the botanist Thomas Johnson in 1634, who found it growing abundantly in the Avon valley, the Spiked Star of Bethlehem is found in only 26 10km squares in the UK and just a handful of sites outside the counties of Wiltshire and Bath and North-east Somerset (BANES). In the latest Red List of UK plants it’s listed as nationally scarce and thus is considered endangered. Quite a change in fortune from the days when it was widely eaten as a buttered hors d’oeuvre and gathered in bundles and sold by local grocers (who were perhaps unaware that the ‘asparagus’ heads can act as a diuretic!).
Spiked Star of Bethlehem, 18 June 2012
Peter Marren, writing in 1999 in his superb ‘Britain’s Rare Flowers‘ said that few people still collected the ‘asparagus’, but that a few greengrocers in the nearby town of Bradford-on-Avon (very much an artisan’s town and just a few miles from Great Chalfield) still sold it into the 1990s. I’m not sure whether they still are, but in general far, far fewer people than previously go out taking the unopened heads (which is fortunate for the rest of us who would rather see the plant in full flower). Would collecting the Bath asparagus have an impact on its numbers now though? Marren thought that as long as the bulb was left in the ground probably not, and though very range restricted it’s often very common where it does grow.
It’s certainly true to say that locally it grows in very good numbers – Great Chalfield and the immediate roadside hedgerows were graced with literally hundreds of spikes last year, and even in this year’s dark and soggy summer they can easily be found once you recognise them. According to Dominic Price of Plantlife (http://www.plantlife.org.uk/) who I spoke to when I was originally preparing this blog, rather than casual collecting the main threats are habitat loss, changes in woodland management, and the boom in the population of Roe Deer, which apparently find the tips as delicious as we once did.
The last point certainly struck a chord with me as a great many of the plants I’ve found at Great Chalfield over the last three summers (particularly where they’re growing under a woodland canopy) have had their tips neatly nipped off leaving just the stems. I’m assuming deer are the culprits as there are plenty of them here and they of course have no idea that this lovely flower is nationally scarce and worth protecting. Somewhat like egg-collecting, harvesting the ‘Bath asparagus’ is no longer in fashion and seems to be dying out. Besides, surely we local residents find all the ‘exotic’ food we need in the local town’s plethora of supermarkets anyway?
Still, whatever the cause it is a shame to see so many decapitated plants – but numbers of spikes from year to year seem to be stable, and plants the world over are cropped and survive well. My guess is that providing the Chalfield estate is managed in the way that it is now, the lovely Spiked Star of Bethlehem will be growing here for many years to come…
Photos copyright Charlie Moores/Talking Naturally 2012