Helonias dioica. Helonias.
Nat. Ord. — Melanthaceae. Sex. Syst. — Hexandria Trigynia.
Description. — This plant, also known by the names of False Unicorn-root, Drooping Starwort, Devil's Bit, etc., is the Veratrum Luteum of Linnaeus, and the Melanthium Dioicum of Walter. It is a herbaceous perennial, with a large, somewhat bulbous, premorse root, from which arises a simple, very smooth, somewhat angular stem or scape, one or two feet in hight. The cauline leaves are lanceolate, acute, small, and at some distance from each other, without petioles ; the radical leaves are broader, being from four to eight inches in length, by half an inch to an inch in width, narrow at base, and formed into a sort of whorl at the base of the scape. The flowers are small, very numerous, greenish-white, and are disposed in long, terminal, spicate, nodding, dioecious racemes, resembling a plume, and which are more slender and weak on the barren plants. Male flowers with white, linear-spathulate, obtuse, one-nerved petals; stamens rather longer than the petals; filaments subulate ; anthers terminal, two-lobed ; ovaries wanting. Female flowers, the raceme is generally few flowered, becoming erect ; petals linear ; stamens very short, abortive ; ovary ovate, subtriangular, with the sides deeply furrowed ; stigmas three, spreading or reflexed. Capsule ovate-oblong, tapering to the base, three-furrowed, opening at the summit. Seeds many in each cell, acute, compressed.
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 plant is sometimes mistaken for the Aletris Farinosa, but may be identified by the leaves of the aletris being sharply pointed, with a straight slender spike of scattered flowers, while the helonias is not so sharply lance-shaped in its leaves, and has a thick plumose dioical spike.
The root is the officinal part ; it is tapering, fibrous, about an inch and a quarter in length, and from two to six-eighths of an inch in diameter, very hard, transversely wrinkled, and abrupt or premorse at the end, appearing as though it had been cut or bitten off. 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; it has often been the case that these roots have been indiscriminately bought and sold. The specimens of Helonias which I have before me are from half an inch to two inches in length, and from four to six or eight lines in diameter, mostly premorse, but occasionally somewhat pointed, with many small, yellowish-white, thread-like fibers, from half an inch to two or three inches in length ; externally, they are dark-brown, transversely wrinkled, rough and uneven, with annular prominences which often have the appearance as if a small root had been driven into the end of a larger one and grew there ; there are also many small openings, cups, pores, or raised cells, through which passed the fibers, and which will always be seen at the base of each fiber upon carefully removing it from the root; attached to the upper part of the root, will frequently be seen the remains of the scape and radical leaves. Internally, on cutting them transversely, a whitish, rough, circular center is presented, which is surrounded with a smooth substance of a similar or darker color, and near the margin of which may be observed at short distances from each other, dark spots or openings, which appear to be continuations of the fibers, or of the canals through which they pass; a longitudinal section exhibits a rough, whitish center one or two lines in diameter passing through the root, on each side of which is the smooth substance above referred to, with few or none of the dark spots. The roots have a faint, peculiar, unpleasant odor when bruised, and a peculiar bitter, somewhat aloetic taste, not so powerful in the dried ones as in the fresh. As far as I can recollect, the root of the aletris seldom exceeds an inch in length, is not premorse, has a brittle, scaly appearance, is blackish outside, brownish inside, and although having many fibers, the most of them pass from the upper and lateral portions of the root.
Properties and Uses. — Helonias is tonic, diuretic, and vermifuge ; in large doses, emetic, and when fresh, sialagogue. In doses of ten or fifteen grains of the powdered root, repeated three or four times a day, it has been found very beneficial in dyspepsia, loss of appetite, and for the removal of worms. It is reputed beneficial in colic, and in atony of the generative organs. In uterine diseases it is held to be invaluable, 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 leucorrhea, amenorrhea, dysmenorrhea, and to remove the tendency to repeated and successive miscarriages. The plant is said to kill cattle feeding on it ; and the decoction to kill insects, bugs, and lice. Dose of the powder, from twenty to forty grains ; of the decoction, from two to four fluidounces ; of the hydro-alcoholic extract from two to four or five grains.
The Helonias Bullata, with purple flowers, and probably some other species, possesses similar medicinal virtues.