Helonias Dioica. (Chamalirium Luteum). Unicorn, False Unicorn.

Devil's Bit, Blazing Star, Drooping Starwort.

Description: Natural Order, Melanthaceae. This is called Chamaelirium by Willdenow and Gray, though the above generic and specific name of Pursh is still retained by most botanists. It was classed as veratrum lutea by Linnaeus; and belongs to the same family as veratrum viride, (American hellebore,) colchicum, and uvularia, (sometimes called a solomon's-seal.) Genus HELONIAS: A smooth herb, with a slender stem (scape) rising erect and unbranched from eighteen inches to two feet high, terminated with a wand-like spicate raceme from six to eight inches long, of small flowers. Flowers dioecious, (staminate flowers on one plant and pistillate on another,) without bracts; perianth of six white, spathulate-linear, spreading sepals, which wither early and then remain upon the stem; most numerous on the male plants, and sometimes causing the slender raceme to nod; fewer on the female plants, in which the raceme is quite erect; fertile flowers with short rudiments of stamens. Leaves various–those nearest the roots from four to eight inches long, half an inch to an inch in width, spreading in a somewhat star-shape at the bottom of the flower-stem, obtuse, and rounded-spathulate, tapering into a short petiole; the cauline leaves quite small, scattered, and without petioles. Fruit a small oblong-ovoid pod, very thin, without lobes, but opening into three valves at the top, and containing numerous small, linear seeds. The present genus chamaelirium has but a single species, (the luteum,) which is covered by the above description; but the genus helonias has the above dioica, and also the bullata, which is most distinguished by its perianth being purplish, its flower-stalk hollow, and its pod three-lobed. Both plants grow in damp places, especially moist woodlands, throughout the United States.

This plant has usually been confounded with the aletris farinosa, which also has received the common names of unicorn root and blazing star. This error has chiefly been made by druggists; for while the plants bear a botanical resemblance, they can easily be discriminated; but the roots have been thrown upon the market indiscriminately, till it has come to be the opinion of many physicians that the two plants are essentially the same. Indeed, some large and reputable establishments, in this city and elsewhere, have so strenuously insisted that the real helonias root was aletris, and the aletris root helonias, that I was for some years deceived by the positiveness of their assertions; and in my Surgery commended aletris when I should have said helonias. Now the aletris is a positive and dangerous poison, and it is important that the practitioner should distinguish the two plants, both in botany and in commerce. The following features will clearly separate the two articles:


  • Flowers dioecious, without bracts.
  • Perianth smooth, free from the ovary, spreading.
  • Stamens protruding beyond the perianth.
  • Leaves round at the apex.
  • Roots fleshy, with fibers arising from them.


  • Flowers perfect, with awl-shaped bracts.
  • Perianth thickly set with points, mealy looking, cohering with base of ovary, tubular, cleft only above.
  • Stamens included within the perianth.
  • Leaves acute at the apex.
  • Roots all small, thread-like fibers.

The mealy appearance of the flowers in aletris, at once strikes the eye, and separates it from the smooth-flowered helonias. In commerce, the thread-like roots of aletris are several inches in length, and spring directly from the collum; but the root of helonias is as large and as long as a man's little finger, often abrupt but sometimes tapering, always of a compact yet fleshy character, and giving only a few small and short fibers. When the fibers are broken off from the fleshy rhizoma of the helonias, they leave the surface dotted with small cup-shaped depressions.

Properties and Uses: The root of helonias is a strong bitter, and one of the most distinctly stimulating of all tonics. It acts very generally upon the system, including in its range the salivary glands, respiratory organs, stomach, gall-ducts, uterus, and ovaries. It stimulates the salivary flow, excites the fauces and respiratory passages, and promotes expectoration, for which purposes it is useful in greatly depressed and atonic conditions of the lungs, but should never be used in sensitive conditions. These latter remarks will also apply to this agent when employed for its influence on other organs. In atonic dyspepsia, it promotes appetite and stimulates the gastric secretions; and at the same time arouses the biliary ejections, and stimulates the bowels to cast out foul mucous and other accumulations. It thus facilitates catharsis in cases of alvine languor, and sometimes expels worms; but it is not to be classed as a distinct cathartic. But its most prominent and valuable action is upon the uterine organs; where it scarcely has an equal in atonic forms of prolapsus, leucorrhea, passive hemorrhage and menorrhagia, and similar enfeebled conditions. While its use in sensitive patients and irritable uterine conditions is to be avoided, it can be employed to the greatest advantage in flaccid and prostrated states for the maladies above named. Though in no sense an astringent, its tonic influence is peculiarly efficacious in arresting too excessive menstruation and lochia, when associated with laxity and depression; and it rarely fails to arrest a threatened abortion arising from the same conditions. In these connections, it is one of the most reliable tonics in the Materia Medica.. D. Tyrrell, M. D., of Illinois, tells me that he has known a full dose of it to arrest natural menstruation for forty-eight hours, if taken when the discharge first showed itself; and this apparently without the least disadvantage to the woman. That these influences over the uterine function are due to the pure tonic action of the agent, is at once seen in the fact that it is a valuable article to restore the menstrual flow when this is absent from sheer inability of the generative organs.

D. H. Stafford, M. D., of Newcastle, Ind., tells me that he has used this agent to much advantage in atony of the kidneys, Bright's disease, and diabetes; and that it distinctly diminishes the amount of saccharine flow in the latter malady.

Helonias is seldom administered alone; but is most frequently employed in combination, to give intensity to more relaxing and less positive agents. Thus as an expectorant, it is usually associated with aralia and eupatorium perfoliatum; and as a tonic with frasera, populus, hydrastis, and other agents. It is a valuable ingredient in the compounds called Woman's Friend, Female Restorative, and some other standard preparations. The dose of the powder is usually stated at from ten to twenty grains three times a day; but it is too powerful an article to use in such quantities, except for a dose or two on very urgent occasions. Five grains are a fair average dose.

Pharmaceutical Preparations: I. Fluid Extract. A pound of the crushed root is macerated for two days with sixty percent alcohol, then transferred to a percolator, and treated as in the process for fluid extract of eupatorium perfoliatum. It is a very strong preparation, of which from three to five drops, in simple sirup, is an average dose.

II. Helonin. Under this name, two different preparations are put upon the market. The first is made from a saturated tincture, evaporated, and treated with a limited amount of water, as for eupatorin. A deposit settles, which is somewhat resinoid, and is claimed to be a representative of the plant; but I can not concede to it this position. The second preparation is a refined alcoholic extract, dried and reduced to powder, after the process directed for cypripedin. This is a good and reliable preparation, and may be used in doses of from half a grain to two grains.

The Physiomedical Dispensatory, 1869, was written by William Cook, M.D.
It was scanned by Paul Bergner at http://medherb.com