Erythronium americanum. Common Erythronium.
For a considerable time the genus Erythronium was considered as containing only one species, the E. dens canis of Europe and Asia. The American plant was considered, by Michaux, as a variety of the European, differing only in colour. Later botanists have, with propriety, separated it, and besides this, one or two other American species have been added to the genus.
[My friend Mr. F. Boott discovered a new species of Erythronium on the Camel's rump mountain in Vermont, which he calls E. bracteatum. Its character is E. foliis incequalibus, scapo bracteato. In all the specimens gathered by that gentleman, the leaves were very unequal, one being twice the size of the other; the scape had also a lanceolate bracte near the top. The flower was yellow and about half the size of E. Americanum.]
The natural order, called Liliaceae by Linnaeus, and Lilia by Jussieu, is perhaps not exceeded by any other, in the uniform elegance of all its species. The Lily, Tulip, Crown imperial, and Gloriosa are specimens of this order. They belong to the same artificial class and order Hexandria trigynia, and have a close affinity in all the parts of their structure. The Erythronium, which is generally called, I know not for what reason, Dog's tooth violet, is one of the smallest of the order.
This genus has no calyx. Its corolla is inferior, six petalled; the three inner petals with a callous prominence on each edge near the base. The common American plant has its scape naked, its leaves lanceolate and involute at the point; and its style club-shaped and undivided. It is an early flowering plant, being in blossom in the first part of May. It grows in woods and fields in the Northern and Middle states.
The root is a solid bulb, situated deep in the ground, brown outside, and white and homogeneous within. The whole plant is smooth and glossy. Scape naked, slender. Leaves two, nearly equal, lanceolate, veinless, of a dark brownish green, clouded with irregular spots> sheathing the scape with their base, and terminating in an obtuse callous point. Flower solitary, drooping. Petals six, lanceolate, yellow, the three outermost partly crimson on the outside, the three innermost having an obscure tooth on each side near the base. In a clear sun the petals are expanded and revolute, but at night and on cloudy days, they are nearly closed. Filaments flat, anthers oblong-linear. Germ obovate, style longer than the stamens, club-shaped, three lobed at top and terminating in three distinct, but not detached, stigmas. Capsule oblong-obovate, somewhat pedicelled.
The bulb of this plant, judging from its texture and taste, is almost wholly farinaceous. When dry, it is mealy and free from any unpleasant flavour. Having lost my specimens of the root at the time of preparing this article, I was unable to submit this part to chemical examination. A tincture was prepared from some dried leaves and flowers, which gave evidence of resin being present, when tested with alcohol. Water distilled from the same parts had a rather disagreeable odour.
This vegetable possesses the power of acting on the stomach as an emetic. About twenty five grains of the green root and forty of the recently dried root have produced nausea and vomiting. When the root is fully and thoroughly dried, or when it has been exposed to heat, it appears to lose this property in a great measure. In its power of acting on the alimentary canal, it resembles many other plants, which are related to it in botanical habit. The Squill, Colchicum, and Aloe are examples of this class, and even the common Daffodil and Tulip are found to be emetic. I have known a family of children to be taken with violent vomiting from having, by mistake, dug up, roasted and eaten some Tulip roots, supposing them to be Artichokes.
It is probable that the medicinal activity of the Erythronium is of a volatile nature, capable of being dissipated by heat. Its farinaceous portion, when duly separated, is no doubt innoxious. Gmelin, in his Flora Sibirica, states, that the Tartars collect and dry the roots of Erythronium dens canis, and boil them either with milk or broth, and consider them as very nutritious food. They are said nearly to resemble salep. It is remarkable that farinaceous roots, which possess active and even virulent qualities, do not impart them to the faecula, which constitutes so large a portion of their bulk. The different species of Arum, Calla, and the Jatropha Manihot are examples of this fact, affording nutritious bread, although their crude juices are more or less poisonous.
The leaves of the American Erythronium are said to be more active than the root, but on this subject I am not fully informed. It is probable that the recent leaves have more activity than the dry.
Erythronium Americanum, Ker, Bot. Mag. t. 1113.
Nuttall, Genera, i. 223.
E. lanceolatum, Pursh, i. 230.
E. longifolium, Poiret, Encycl. Methodique.
E. flavum, Smith, Rees' Cycl.
E. dens canis, Michaux, Flora, i. 198.
American Medical Botany, 1817-1821, was written by Jacob Bigelow, M. D.