Related plant: Aletris.—Aletris
The rhizome of Chamaelirium luteum, Gray (Helonias dioica, Pursh; Helonias lutea, Aiton).
Nat. Ord.—Liliaceae (Melanthaceae, Br.).
COMMON NAMES: Unicorn root, False unicorn root, Blazing star, Starwort.
ILLUSTRATION: (See American Dispensatory, eighth and succeeding editions).
We have adopted Gray as authority in the name of this plant, therefore the term Helonias dioica of former editions will be replaced to conform with the generally accepted classification. The common name is Unicorn root, derived from the fact that the rhizome resembles a horn. Afterward this term was applied to Aletris farinosa, which is thus the False unicorn. Chamaelirium is also known under the names Drooping starwort, Devil's bit, and in former editions of this work, and in other books, as False unicorn.
Botanical Source.—The Chamaelirium is an erect, slender herb, about 2 feet high, and without branches. The stem is smooth, round, striate, and terminates in a long, slender spike of small white flowers. The lower leaves are obovate-spatulate, smooth, entire, alternate, and exstipulate. They are clustered in at the base of the stem, gradually becoming smaller until the upper are reduced to scales. They are attached at an acute angle to the stem. The radical leaves are obtuse, but those on the upper part of the stem are acute; the veins are parallel, and run lengthwise along the leaf, but are not prominent. The flowers are very small, and the fertile and sterile are on different stems; the fertile stems being much more leafy than the sterile. The female flowers consist, each, of 6 small, linear, white petals, a small, globular ovary, about the size of a grain of hemp seed, with 3 linear stigmas about the length of the ovary; each one is succeeded by a dry, oblong capsule, opening by 3 valves at the apex, and containing numerous minute seeds. The sterile flowers are in spikes much longer than those of the fertile, and are from 4 to 6 inches in length. They have 6 linear petals, and the same number of stamens, which have unequal filaments about twice the length of the petals; the anthers are small and globular. The aspect of the flowering stems of male and female plants is very different, and they would hardly be attributed to the same species by one who has not closely examined them.
History.—This plant is indigenous to the United States, and is abundant in some of the western states, growing in woodlands, meadows, and moist situations, and flowering in June and July. It is also found in low grounds from Canada to Georgia and Louisiana.
The rhizome of this plant has long been confounded with, and sold for, that of Aletris farinosa, and to such an extent that druggists generally have concluded the two must bear a very close resemblance. This is a mistake, as there is scarcely any likeness between them. The impression as to their similarity of appearance was strengthened by the American Dispensatory, p. 419, eighth and succeeding editions, viz.: "There has been, and still exists, much difficulty among druggists and herb-gatherers, in determining the difference between the roots of Aletris farinosa and Helonias dioica, as they greatly resemble each other," etc. With the view of correcting previous mistakes, and setting right the history of the two plants, we have produced facsimile drawings of both plants (Figs. 14 and 66), and by a simple reference to our engravings of Aletris farinosa and a comparison with that of Chamaelirium, it will be obvious: (1) "That the shape of the leaves and general appearance of the plant are entirely different. (2) The rhizomae are utterly unlike, and do not in the least resemble each other."
It is to be regretted that so much confusion has existed with regard to these rhizomae, and the difficulty must be ascribed to the common names given them, and not to a resemblance. We have upon the market, the rhizomae of Unicorn and False unicorn, of Stargrass and Starwort, Helonias dioica, and Aletris farinosa and the majority of dealers and therapeutists are by no means decided as to the identity of either of them. When ordered by their common names, the roots from one section of country will be the reverse of those from other sections; and when stargrass or unicorn root is sold to a druggist the dealer is uncertain as to whether it will not be returned as "different from that previously purchased." Strict conformity to botanical names will assist in overcoming this extended and serious evil.
Description.—The rhizomae of chamaelirium are from ½ an inch to 2 inches in length, and, when dry, average from ¼ of an inch to ½ an inch in diameter. They are mostly curved (horn shape), but some are nearly straight; usually premorse (as though bitten off), but sometimes they are pointed. Externally, they are dark-brown, transversely wrinkled, rough and uneven, showing the stem-scars upon the upper side. Around the entire rhizome are fibrous rootlets, scattered above and thicker below. The fresh fibers are succulent, with the exception, however, of a hard, ligneous, thread-like center, which remains from one season to another long after the soft external portion has decayed. This gives rise to the appearance of pores or pin-holes upon the surface of the root, through many of which the woody fibers still pass, and extend, as fragments, from ½ an inch to 2 inches beyond the surface, and internally, to the central part of the rhizome. When the fibers are entirely decayed, the small, pin-like holes remain and are often mistaken for worm-holes. Remains of radical leaves are occasionally found attached to the upper end of the rhizome, below which will often be observed a bunch of dried fibers, and along the upper side of the rhizome may be seen the bases of several annual stems or stem-scars. Internally, the rhizome is very hard, of a horn-like color and texture, about ⅓ of the central portion being a little lighter, and partly composed of fibrous matter, from the surface of which the rootlets rise. The dried rhizomae exhale a peculiar, characteristic, not unpleasant odor, more strongly developed when bruised, or rubbed between the fingers. The taste is very bitter, disagreeable and acrid. The virtues are extracted by alcohol, and, when fresh, by alcohol or boiling water.
Chemical Composition.—The rhizome contains a yellowish bitter principle, for which the name chamaelirin has been proposed by Dr. F. V. Greene. It is a neutral body in the form of a powder, insoluble in the ordinary solvents, except alcohol and water, with both of which it gives frothy solutions after the manner of saponin. By treatment with diluted acids it is resolved into grape sugar and chamaeliretin, a resinous body dissolving in ether and alcohol. Chamaelirin is said to act as a heart poison.
Action, Medical Uses, and Dosage.—Helonias is tonic, diuretic, and vermifuge; in large doses, emetic, and, when fresh, sialagogue. In doses of 10 or 15 grains of the powdered root, repeated 3 or 4 times a day, it has been found very beneficial in dyspepsia, loss of appetite, and for the removal of worms. It is more especially applicable in indigestion, dyspepsia, and mal-assimilation, where the trouble is reflex from, or associated with wrongs of the female reproductive apparatus. Such digestive disturbances as depend upon uterine and ovarian irritation, or upon lack of uterine activity, in chlorotic anemia, are benefited by it, as well as the gastric complications of albuminuria. It is not, however, of much value in albuminuria itself. It is said to render the urine alkaline. It is reputed beneficial in colic, and is valuable in atony of the generative organs. I have found this plant to possess a decidedly beneficial influence in cases of sexual lassitude in both sexes, and of nocturnal emissions, the result of excesses, especially in those instances where there are symptoms of gastric derangement with impaired memory, mental apathy, or indifference, and an enfeebled condition of the general system, with weakness or dull pain in the renal, or lumbo-sacral region (King). In diseases of the reproductive organs of females, and especially of the uterus, it is one of our most valuable agents, acting as a uterine tonic, and gradually removing abnormal conditions, while at the same time it imparts tone and vigor to the reproductive organs. Hence, it is much used in leucorrhoea, amenorrhoea, dysmenorrhoea, and to remove the tendency to repeated and successive miscarriages. A particular phase removed by it is the irritability and despondency that often attends uterine troubles. In painful menstruation it has been found especially adapted to those cases in which there is pelvic fullness, a sensation as if the womb and rectum were distended with blood, and the aching, bearing-down organs feel as if they would fall out of the body. Its action here is very decided when the smaller doses are employed. It is considered useful by some for the relief of the vomiting of pregnancy. Helonias is a decided tonic to the urinary tract, and has exerted some benefit in diabetes insipidus. The plant is said to kill cattle feeding on it; and the decoction to kill insects, bugs, and lice. Dose of the powder, from 20 to 10 grains; of the decoction, from 2 to 4 fluid ounces; of a saturated tincture, from 10 to 30 minims; of the hydro-alcoholic extract, from 2 to 4 or 5 grains; specific helonias, 1 to 20 drops. The Helonias bullata, with purple flowers, and probably some of the other species, possess similar medicinal virtues.
Owing to the confusion that once existed (compare Aletris and Chamaelirium) concerning the rhizomes furnishing helonias and aletris, the therapy of these drugs have been heretofore similarly given. Aletris, however, is more adapted to digestive disorders, while helonias is chiefly a uterine tonic.
Specific Indications and Uses.—Mental irritability and despondency; sexual lassitude; atony of the female reproductive organs; gastric debility, with anorexia, nausea, indigestion, and mal-assimilation, particularly when due to reflexes of uterine origin; sticky, slimy leucorrhoea; atonic urinary tract; dysmenorrhoea, with pelvic fullness and heaviness, as if congested, with bearing-down sensation, as, if the parts were about to fall out.