Aletris farinosa. Star Grass.
I know of no plant which surpasses the Aletris farinosa in genuine, intense and permanent bitterness. Neither aloes, gentian, nor quassia exceed it in the impression produced on the tongue. It has, on account of this property, attracted the observation of some medical men, and may hereafter become an article of more consequence in the Materia Medica. Although the number of trials, hitherto made, are perhaps not sufficient to fix with precision its exact character, yet in a collection of American medicinal vegetables it ought not to pass unnoticed.
This plant grows in most parts of the United States in fields and about the edges of woods, and flowers in June and July. I have found it near Boston on the south, but never to the north of it. Its mode of growth is not without beauty, the leaves spreading close to the ground in a radiated manner, like a star; while the spike is supported by an almost naked stalk, at a distance above them. The names Star Grass and Blazing star are generally given to it in the country, from the peculiar appearance of its leaves.
The genus Aletris has its corolla tubular, six cleft, wrinkled, persistent; stamens inserted into the base of the segments; style triangular, separable into three; capsule opening at top, three celled, many seeded. The species farinosa, called alba by Michaux and Pursh, has its flowers pedicelled, oblong-tubular, somewhat wrinkled in fruit; the leaves broad lanceolate. Michaux observes that of the species referred by Linnaeus to this genus, the A. farinosa is the only one which strictly belongs to it. Class Hexandria; order Monogynia; natural orders Liliaceae, Linn. Asphodeli, Juss.
This plant has a single circle of radical leaves, which are sessile, nerved, lanceolate, and smooth. The stem or scape is from one to three feet high, invested with remote scales, which sometimes expand into small leaves. The flowers form a slender, scattered spike with very short pedicels and minute bractes. Calyx none. Corolla white, of an oblong bell-shape, divided at the mouth into six acute, spreading segments. The outside, particularly as the flower grows old, has a roughish, wrinkled or mealy appearance, by which the specific name was suggested. The stamens are short, inserted near the mouth of the corolla at the base of the segments. The circumstance of their being opposite to the segments, and not alternate with them, affords the most distinguishing mark of this genus. The anthers are somewhat heart-shaped* Germ pyramidal, half inferior, tapering: style triangular, separable into three. Capsule invested with the permanent corolla, triangular, three celled, three valved at top. Seeds numerous, minute, fixed to a central receptacle.
The Aletris aurea, of Michaux and Pursh, closely resembles this species, and it is difficult, by comparing specimens of the two, to point out any permanent distinctive marks. The leaves of A. aurea are somewhat narrower and the flowers bright yellow. Walter places it under A. farinosa as a variety, and adds that he could not detect a specific difference; although the time of flowering and place of growth indicate that they are distinct. In sensible properties they are similar.
In the London Philosophical transactions for 1730, a plant is mentioned by Clayton, which, though not described in botanical language, leaves little doubt that the Aletris farinosa is intended. He says, "there is another root of the species of hyacinths; the leaves are grass-like, but smooth and stiff, of a willow-green colour, and spread like a star on the ground. From the middle shoots a tall, long, rush-like stem, without leaves, near two feet high; on one side grow little white bell-flowers one above another. The root is black outwardly, but brown within. It is bitter and probably has the same virtues as Little Centaury. Some call it ague grass, others ague root, others star grass."
The root of the Aletris is highly resinous, and appears to contain a portion of extractive matter. The tincture, made by digesting the root in alcohol, is intensely bitter, and assumes a milky turbidness if water be added to it. The decoction is moderately bitter, and is not disturbed by alcohol. With chalybeate solutions it undergoes little change. The tincture is to be considered a stronger preparation than the decoction, although the latter has a good share of the virtues of the plant.
The bitterness of this vegetable has brought it into notice in the quality of a tonic and stomachic. I have been informed of its use for this purpose by physicians in different parts of the country. The most common mode of its employment, I understand, is by infusion or decoction. Pursh speaks of it as a remedy in the colic, but on what principle it can operate in relieving that disease, I am at a loss to say.
—The amount of bitter resin, which the plant contains, led me to suspect that it might possess some of the properties of aloes, to which the plant is botanically related; but on trial, made in several instances with the root in powder, a dose of ten or twelve grains produced no effect of this kind whatever. A physician, who experimented with larger quantities, with a view to test this quality, informed me that a dose of twenty grains occasioned much nausea and tendency to vomit, followed by some dizziness; but that no cathartic operation took place.
Dr. Cutler, in his account of the plants of New England, informs us, that this plant has been considered useful in chronic rheumatism $ but does not mention the dose or preparation.
As far as we can sum up the testimony hitherto offered respecting the general properties of this plant, it appears that the infusion or decoction acts as a tonic in small doses. Indeed the exhibition of large ones would be inconvenient from the extreme bitterness of the plant. The powder, in small quantities, produces no immediate visible effect, except that it has appeared to invigorate the appetite. In large doses it disturbs the stomach, and possibly exerts some narcotic effect on the system. It remains to be determined whether these consequences are attributable to the resin, which the infusion does not dissolve; or whether the largeness of the dose is alone instrumental. It is well known that the stomach does not tolerate even gentian or any common bitter in large dose. And it seems probable that if the Aletris should ever increase in reputation as a tonic bitter, it will only be by its use in limited quantities.
Aletris farinosa, Linn.
Willd. Sp. pl. ii. 183.
Bot. Mag. t. 1418.
Aletris alba, Michaux, Flora, i. 189.
Pursh, i. 225.
Hyacinthus floridanus spicatus, Plukenet, amalth. 119, t 437, f. 2.
Hyacynthus caule nudo, &c.
Gronov. Virg. 58.
Clayton, Phil. Trans, abr. viii. 333.
Cutler, American Acad. vol. i. 435.