OTHER COMMON NAMES—Unicorn root, false unicorn root, blazing star, drooping starwort, starwort, devil's-bit, unicorn's-horn.
In order to avoid the existing confusion of common names of this plant, it is most desirable to use the scientific names Chamaelirium or Helonias exclusively. Chamaelirium is the most recent botanical designation and will be used thruout this article, but the synonym Helonias is a name very frequently employed by the drug trade. The plant with which it is so much confused, Aletris farinosa, will also be designated thruout by its generic name, Aletris.
HABITAT AND RANGE—This native plant is found in open woods from Massachusetts to Michigan, south to Florida and Arkansas.
DESCRIPTION OF PLANT—Chamaelirium and Aletris (Aletris farinosa) have long been confused by drug collectors and others, owing undoubtedly to the transposition of some of their similar common names, such as "starwort" and "stargrass." The plants can scarcely be said to resemble each other, however, except perhaps in their general habit of growth.
The male and female flowers of Chamaelirium are borne on separate plants, and in this respect are entirely different from Aletris; neither do the flowers resemble those of Aletris.
Chamaelirium is an erect, somewhat fleshy herb, perennial, and belongs to the bunchflower family (Melanthaceae.) The male plant grows to a height of from 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 feet, and the female plant is sometimes 4 feet tall and is also more leafy.
The plants have both basal and stem leaves, where as Aletris has only the basal leaves. The basal leaves of Chamaelirium are broad and blunt at the top, narrowing toward the base into a long stem; they are sometimes so much broadened at the top that they may be characterized as spoon shaped, and are from 2 to 8 inches long and from one-half to 1 1/2 inches wide. The stem leaves are lance shaped and sharp pointed, on short stems or stemless.
The white starry flowers of Chamaelirium are produced from June to July, those of the male plant being borne in nodding, graceful, plume-like spikes 3 to 9 inches long, and those of the female plant in erect spikes. The many seeded capsule is oblong, opening by three valves at the apex.
Another species is now recognized, Chamaelirium obovale. Small, which seems to differ chiefly in having larger flowers and obovoid capsules.
DESCRIPTION OF ROOTSTOCK—The rootstock of Chamaelirium. does not in 'the least resemble that of Aletris, with which it is so generally confused. It is from one-half to 2 inches in length, generally curved upward at one end in the form of a horn (whence the common name, "unicorn") and having the appearance of having been bitten off. It is of a dark brown color with fine transverse wrinkles, rough, on the upper surface showing a few stem scars, and giving off from all sides numerous brown fibrous rootlets. The more recent rootlets have a soft outer covering, which in the older rootlets has worn away, leaving the fine but tough and woody whitish center. The rootlets penetrate to the central part of the rootstock, and this serves as a distinguishing character from Aletris, as a transverse section of Chamaelirium very plainly shows these fibers extending some distance. within the rootstock. Furthermore, the rootstock of Chamaelirium exhibits a number of small holes wherever these rootlets have broken off, giving it the appearance of having become "wormy." It is hard and horny within and has a peculiar odor and a very bitter, disagreeable taste, whereas Aletris is not at all bitter.
COLLECTION, PRICES AND USES—Chamaelirium should be collected in autumn. The prices paid to collectors may be said to range from about 30 to 45 cents a pound. In the fall of 1906 a scarcity of this root was reported. As already indicated, Chamaelirium and Aletris are often gathered and mistaken for each other by collectors, but, as will be seen from the preceding description, there is really no excuse for such error.
From the confusion that has existed properties peculiar to the one plant have also been attributed to the other, but it seems now generally agreed that Chamaelirium is of use especially in derangements of women.
Ginseng and Other Medicinal Plants, 1936, was written by A. R. Harding.