The rhizome of Aletris farinosa, Linné, gathered after the plant has flowered.
ILLUSTRATION.—Strong's American Flora (exclusive of root), p. 65.
COMMON NAMES: Blazing star, Star grass, Starwort, False unicorn root.
Botanical Source.—Aletris is a small herb found in most parts of the United States. The common name is Star grass, but the term False unicorn is sometimes used. The name Unicorn root is more properly applied to Chamaelirium (Helonias). Aletris is also known as Blazing star. The leaves are all radical and grass-like, from ¼ to ½ inch wide, and from 2 to 4 inches long. They are smooth, entire, acute, and of a firm texture, and have from 6 to 10 parallel and quite prominent veins. The flowering stem is erect, from 2 to 3 feet high, and arises from the center of the cluster of root leaves. It has no stem leaves, but at intervals of about 2 inches, there are very small, linear scales, which may readily escape detection without a close examination. The stems are round and striate near the base, but angular above. The flowers are perfect, and in slender, terminal, simple racemes. They are on short pedicles, with small bracts at the base. The perianth is cylindrical, urn-shaped, white, with a yellowish tinge at the apex; wrinkled, rough and mealy outside, and 6-cleft at the summit. The stamens are 6, small and included. The ovary is ovate, and tapers to a slender style, which is trifid at the apex. The fruit is a dry, many-seeded, acute pod, opening by 3 valves.
History and Description.—The commercial drug, under this name, as found upon the market, is generally the rhizome of Chamaelirium (see Chamaelirium). Strange as it may seem under these circumstances, the two roots have no resemblance, are utterly unlike, and their appearance forbids admixture. We can not recall a single instance where Aletris farinosa was adulterated with Chamaelirium and yet so universal has the substitution of the last become, that Prof. King, in describing the root of Aletris (Amer. Disp., 8th ed., p. 78), has given a description of that of Chamaelirium, and Strong's American Flora figures the top of Aletris with the rhizome of Chamaelirium. In this connection, we invite attention to our exact engraving of the Aletris plant and root (Fig. 14), and, as a comparison, invite attention to the engraving of Chamaelirium (see Chamaelirium, Fig. 66). When dry, the root of Aletris farinosa is from ½ to 1 inch in length, seldom longer. It is surrounded and completely hidden by an intricate mass of fibers, remains of radical leaves and partly decayed matter. The recent growth of yearly fibres are white, and from 2 to 6, or even 10, inches in length. In texture, they are made up of a hard, durable, brown, woody center, over which are several layers of white, tissue-like epidermis, that peel off by age, and decay. Thus we find the lower portion of the dry rhizome of Aletris farinosa covered by a mass consisting of dead, brown, woody fibers of former years, from which the paper-like envelope has separated, together with white, recent rootlets from which the white epidermis is still scaling; while intermixed, are the chaff-like remains of the epidermis, in various stages of decomposition.
The radical leaves spring directly from the upper part of the growing end of the creeping rhizome. They contain numerous hard, round, woody fibers running lengthwise with the leaf, and from year to year, as the succulent portions of the leaves decay, the fibers remain and hold the fragments of mealy leaf-matter; and thus the upper, as well as the lower portion of the primary root is perfectly concealed from view. The dried root proper is about ¼ of an inch in diameter just beneath the leaves, and tapers from this point to nearly ⅛ of an inch; very often the extreme end turns downward, and usually terminates abruptly. The surface is rough, scaly, and thickly covered with root fibers below, and leaf scars and leaf fibers above. Internally, it is soft, spongy, white or slightly straw-colored, the central portion being less firm than the outer. It is odorless, acrid to the taste, not bitter. Chamaelirium (Helonias), on the contrary, is very bitter.
Physicians should insure the identity of Aletris when purchasing. There is no excuse for confusion, as the two plants (Aletris and Chamaelirium) are entirely different in appearance, the roots do not resemble each other, and are, to the taste, utterly unlike; and while Chamaelirium has a peculiar and characteristic odor, the Aletris is odorless.
Action, Medical Uses and Dosage.—Owing to the confusion which formerly resulted from the substitution of the root of aletris for helonias, erroneous statements have been made regarding the status of the drug in female complaints. The drug must be restudied to determine its true place in therapy. Enough is known, however, to place it among the simple bitter tonics and stomachics, and as such it is employed to promote the appetite and aid digestion, and in flatulence, colic, borborygmi, etc. This root and its preparations are almost entirely employed in dyspeptic conditions; while, in the abnormal conditions of the female reproductive organs, the chamaelirium is used. The dose of specific aletris is from 5 to 20 drops.