English Name—MEALY STARWORT.
French Name—Aletris Meunier.
German Name—Mehlige Sterngrass.
Officinal Name—Aletris Radix.
Vulgar Names—Star-Grass, Blazing Star, Aloroot, Bitter Grass, Unicorn Root, Ague Root, Ague Grass, Star-root, Devil's-bit.
Authorities—Linnaeus, Wildenow, Michaux, Schoepf, Pursh, Elliot, Cutler, Bigelow Mat. Med. fig. 50 bad, Bigelow Sequel, &c.
Genus ALETRIS—Perigone simple, corolliform, tubular, persisten , six cleft, wrinkled, six stamina inserted at the base of the segments. Germ one oblong. Style one triangular tripartible. Capsul three celled, many seeded, opening at the top—Leaves radical, stem simple, scaly, flowers in a slender spike.
Species AL. FARINOSA—Leaves lanceolate mucronate membranaceous, scales adpressed, subulate, flowers cylindrical, white, farinaceous.
Description—Root perennial small, black outside, brown inside, ramose, crooked—Radical leaves from six to twelve, spreading on the ground like a star; but all unequal in size, sessile, lanceolate, entire, very smooth, membranaceus, with many longitudinal veins, sometimes canaliculate, very sharp at the end: they are of a pale green or glancous, and bleach in winter or by drying; the longest are four inches—Stem from one to two feet high, very simple and upright, scapiform or nearly naked, with remote scales, whitish, adpressed, sometimes changing into leaves, subulate, acute.
Flowers white, forming a long slender scattered spike; each flower has a minute bract and very short pedicel; shape oblong, spreading into six acute segments like a star at the top, the outside has a mealy, rugose appearance—six short stamina are inserted near the mouth, anthers cordate. Germ one, central (not inferior) pyramidal. Style one, separable into three. Capsul triangular, clothed by the perigone, triangular, three valved at the top, three celled, and with many central minute seeds.
History—A true natural genus peculiar to North America, and containing two species very similar to each other. The A. Aurea differs merely by narrower leaves, and yellow flowers more campanulate. The A. fragrans, and others of Africa, must form a peculiar genus, the Osmanthes, different from this in habit and fruit. Both American species have the same properties.
This genus does not belong to Liliacea nor Asphodelides; but to ALOIDES, next to Aloes and Crinum, in the natural arrangement. In the Linnaean it ranks in HEXANDRIA Monogynia. Aletris means a miller in Greek, and farinosa means mealy in Latin; both names allude to the mealy appearance of the flowers.
This species has a wide range, being found from New England to Georgia, and west to Kentucky and Missouri. But the A. Aurea is confined to the south from Carolina to Alabama. The A. farinosa is also more abundant in the south, and always confined to dry and poor soils, in sunny glades and fields. It is unknown in the rich limestone soils and alluvial regions. In Kentucky and the west it is confined to the hilly glades, open prairies and barrens of the knob-hills. It is estival, blossoming in June and July.
Many vulgar names given to it are common to other plants, dissimilar in properties if not in aspect.
The Veratrum luteum or dioicum which is also called Star-grass, may be distinguished by its thick plumose dioical spike. The Sisyrinchium, another Star-grass, has single, blue and triandrous flowers, besides long grass leaves. Unicorn-root is also a name of Veratrum and of Neottia. Ague-root is a name applicable to a dozen roots. Such is the confusion arising from vulgar names. The root is the part employed, and being small, does not afford much hope to become an article of trade.
Qualities—The root contains an intense bitter emulsive resin, soluble in Alcohol, somewhat similar to Aloes, but less cathartic. This bitter principle is also partly soluble in water. The tincture is rendered milky by water. The resin is therefore different from Amarine and Aloine, and is perhaps a peculiar compound, Aletrine, formed by Amarine, an oil and a gum.
Properties—The root is intensely bitter, like Quassia and Aloes. It is a pure resinous bitter, and not cathartic like Aloes. It is tonic, stomachic, narcotic and repercussive. It is employed by many country physicians, and Indian Doctors, and highly valued by them as well as the Indians. But small doses only must be used, because large ones produce nausea, dizziness and narcotic effects; twelve grains of the powdered root is to be the largest dose. In repeated small doses it invigorates the appetite. The infusion or decoction is still preferable and may be substituted to Quassia. It cures the flatulent and hysteric cholic and is said to relieve the chronic rheumatism, either in powder, tincture or cordial. In fevers it avails speedily. Bitters made of it are too powerful. A mild cordial is the best spirituous preparation. Dose three small glasses each day.
Substitutes—Quassia—Frasera or Columbo—Gentians—Sabbatia angularis or Centaury, &c. and all the pure intense bitter plants.
Remarks—The figure given for Aletris by Henry is perhaps the Neottia Cernua; and his account is full of blunders as usual with him. Bigelow's figure makes the root green, the leaves too green and too broad, &c.
Schoepf calls it a mild cathartic, and one of the plants used against the bite of rattle-snakes.
Additions and corrections
4. ALETRIS FARINOSA—Another vulgar name is Black root, and Himili one of its Indian names implies the same. It is a powerful and dangerous substance, drastic even in small doses, larger ones produce vertigo and bloody stools: it is also considered abortive by the Indians.
ALETRIS AUREA, Mx. Add, harsh bitter root, used in vinegar for dropsical fever in Carolina. Elliot.
Medical Flora, or Manual of the Medical Botany of the United States of North America, 1828, was written by C. S. Rafinesque.