Aletris. Aletris farinosa L.
OTHER COMMON NAMES—Stargrass, blazingstar, mealy starwort, starwort, unicorn-root, true unicorn-root, unicorn-plant, unicorn's-horn, colic-root, devil's-bit, ague-grass, agueroot, aloe-root, crow-corn, huskwort.
A glance at these common names will show many that have been applied to other plants, especially to Chamaelirium, with which Aletris is so much confused. In order to guard against this confusion as much as possible, it is best not to use the common names of this plant at all, referring to it only by its generic name, Aletris.
HABITAT AND RANGE—Aletris occurs in dry, generally sandy soil, from Maine to Minnesota, Florida and Tennessee.
DESCRIPTION OF PLANT—As stated under Chamaelirium, this plant is often confused. with the former by collectors and others, although there seems to be no good reason why this should be so. The plants do not resemble each other except in habit of growth, and the trouble undoubtedly arose from a confusion of the somewhat similar common names of the plants, as, for instance, "stargrass" and "starwort."
Aletris may be at once distinguished by the grasslike leaves, which spread out on the ground in the form of a star, and by the slender spikes of rough, mealy flowers.
This native perennial, belonging to the Lily family (Liliaceae), is an erect, slender herb, 1 ½ to 3 feet tall, with basal leaves only. These leaves are grasslike, from 2 to 6 inches long, and have a yellowish green or willow-green color. As already stated, they surround the base of the stem in the form of a star. Instead of stem leaves, there are very small, leaflike bracts placed at some distance apart on the stem. From May to July the erect flowering spike, from 4 to 12 inches long, is produced, bearing white, urn-shaped flowers, sometimes tinged with yellow at the apex, and having a rough, wrinkled and mealy appearance. The seed capsule is ovoid, opening by three halves, and containing many seeds. When the flowers in the spike are still in bud, there is a suggestion of resemblance to the female spike of Chamaelirium with its fruit half formed.
Several other species are recognized by botanists, namely, Aletris Aurea Walt., A. lutea Small, and A. obovata Nash, but aside from the flowers, which in aurea and lutea are yellow, and slight variations in form, such as a more contracted perianth, the differences are not so pronounced that the plants would require a detailed description here. They have undoubtedly been collected with Aletris farinosa for years, and are sufficiently like it to be readily recognized.
DESCRIPTION OF ROOTSTOCK—Not only have the plants of Aletris and Chamaelirium been confused, but the rootstocks as well. There is, however, no resemblance between them.
Aletris has a horizontal rootstock from one-half to 1 ½ inches in length, rough and scaly, and almost completely hidden by the fibrous roots and remains of the basal leaves. Upon close examination the scars of former leaf stems may be seen along the upper surface. The rootlets are from 2 to 10 inches in length, those of recent growth whitish and covered with several layers of epidermis which gradually peel off, and the older rootlets of the rootstock showing this epidermis already scaled off, leaving only the hard, brown, woody center. The rootstock in commerce almost invariably shows at one end a tuft of the remains of the basal leaves, which do not lose their green color. It is grayish brown outside, whitish within, and breaks with a mealy fracture. It has no odor, and a starchy taste, followed by some acridity, but no bitterness.
COLLECTION, PRICES AND USES—Aletris should be collected in autumn, and there is no reason why collectors should make the common mistake of confusing Aletris with Chamaelirium. By comparing the description of Aletris with that of Chamaelirium, it will be seen that there is scarcely any resemblance. Aletris ranges from 30 to 40 cents a pound.
As indicated under Chamaelirium, the medicinal properties have also been considered the same in both plants, but Aletris is now regarded of value chiefly in digestive troubles. Aletris was official in the United States Pharmacopoeia from 1820 to 1870.