Chamaelirium: Eclectic Materia Medica

Helonias, False unicorn root, Blazing star

by William E. Bloyer

Medical Herbalism 10(3):18-20

We continue our reprint of excerpts of the comments on materia medica of Professor William Bloyer of the Eclectic Institute in Cincinnati, in the 1898 volume of the Eclectic Medical Journal.

This is an old Eclectic remedy. It has suffered some in reputation because many of the preparations on the market are made from a mixture of the roots, Aletris farinosa being the most common substitute. Only a reliable preparation should be used.

Helonias is a remedy peculiarly adapted to women. It is specifically indicated in cases in which there is mental irritability and depression. The woman complains of a fullness or heaviness and congestion in the pelvis. She frequently says “she feels as if everything will drop out.” There are lumbar pains, restlessness and general weakness. Prof. Scudder said that in the helonias case there was a pinkish color to the surface. This we have not always been able to verify, though we have used helonias frequently and with great satisfaction to ourselves as well as to the patient.

The chief action, as we have said, of helonias is to tone up the female reproductive organs. It improves both their function and nutrition. It helps overcome excessive fatigue, and is the remedy for “that tired feeling” of which the doctor hears so frequently; that pain in the back, and down the thighs and back of legs. It strengthens the uterus and thereby prevents miscarriage, and overcomes the tendency to abort. It relieves many cases of dysmenorrhea, especially when the flow is accompanied by a “bearing down” pain, etc. Helonias is an excellent remedy in many cases of leucorrhea, of amenorrhea, and of chlorosis. It sometimes will relieve the nausea and vomiting of pregnancy when all other remedies fail.

Besides being a tonic, helonias has a decided diuretic action, and is an efficient remedy for strangury, jaundice and in many cases of nephritis, both acute and chronic, especially when the patient is despondent and given to melancholy.

Helonias, through its general tonic effects, is recommended in anorexia and dyspepsia of the atonic type. It is said to be an efficient remedy in some cases of rheumatism. But for these last uses, we have so many superior remedies that we suggest helonias be studied only in its relation to and effect upon the reproductive organs of the female.

Comment

Some modern herbals speculate that chamaelirium has an “amphoteric effect”on hormonal secretion by the ovary, normalizing either excess or deficient secretion (Mills; Trickey). Actual hormonal changes associated with the use of chamaelirium have not been measured in the laboratory, and the above statement must be taken as conjecture to explain the tonifying effect readily observed in the clinic. However, helonias should not be given in any and all uterine complaints, but rather according to the systemic and organ deficiency pattern that Bloyer describes. It may cause aggravation in hypertonic and excess states of the pelvic organs. Nineteenth century physiomedicalist William Cook states: “It scarcely has an equal in atonic forms of prolapse, leucorrhea, passive hemorrhage, and menorrhagia, and similar enfeebled conditions. While its use in sensitive patients and irritable uterine conditions is to be avoided, it can be employed to the greatest advantage in flaccid and prostrated states for the maladies above named.” Cook also suggests that chamaelirium may be used to advantage in arresting excessive menstruation when it is associated with laxity of the pelvic tissues and general depression of the vital force.

 Chamaelirium is endangered in the wild, and substitutes might be selected. No single Western herb matches very well its combination of bitter tonic and pelvic warming properties, which may explain its persistent popularity among medical practitioners. Herbs which might be considered, depending on the case, are raspberry leaf (Rubus spp), damiana leaf (Turnera aphrodisiaca), peony root (Paeonia lactiflora), Teasel root (Dipsacus spp) or other female tonics.

Aletris farinosa (true unicorn root) is sometimes mentioned as a substitute, but historical medical literature weighs in strongly against it. Chamaelirium and Aletris farinosa were apparently commonly mixed in the herbal marketplace during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as Bloyer notes above. The adulteration was mentioned by Cook in 1869 and Scudder in 1870 (Scudder), and continued at least through the publication of Felter’s Materia Medica more than fifty years later (Felter).

Cook Writes:

This plant has usually been confounded with the Aletris farinosa, which also has received the common names of unicorn root and blazing star. . . . the roots have been thrown upon the marketplace indiscriminately, till it has come to be the opinion of many physicians that the two plants are essentially the same. Indeed, some large and reputable establishments, in this city [Cincinnati] and elsewhere have so strenuously insisted that the real helonias root was aletris, and the aletris root helonias, that I was for some years deceived by the positiveness of their assertions.” Cook describes some botanical differences between the two plants:

Helonias                            Aletris

Flowers dioecious, without brachts            Flowers perfect, with awl-shaped                                         brachts

Perianth smooth, free from the ovary, spreading        Perianth thickly set with points,                                         mealy-looking, cohering with base of                                 the ovary, tubular, cleft only above

Stamens protruding beyond the perianth            Stamens included within the                                             perianth.

Leaves round at the apex                    Leaves acute at the apex

Roots fleshy, with fibers arising from them        Roots all small, thread-like fibers

The adulteration apparently persisted in commerce at least into the 1920s, when Felter, like Cook before him, stated that any therapeutic reputation held by aletris was due to its adulteration with chamaelirium: “Owing to the confusion that has long existed resulting from the unwitting substitution of aletris for chamaelirium, the virtues of the latter, as a remedy for the various disorders of the female reproductive organs, have been ascribed also to the former.” Felter’s contemporary Finley Ellingwood considered the two species interchangeable, but in this he runs counter to more than a half-century of clinical observation by his colleagues (Ellingwood). Ellingwood was primarily a clinician, rather than a pharmacist, and may have been unaware of the adulteration in the marketplace.

One of the oldest compound herbal formulas in continuous use in the United States is the Mother’s Cordial, which includes chamaelirium as a component.

Mother’s Cordial

Mitchella repens (partridge berry)        1 pound

Chamaelirium luteum (false unicorn root)    4 ounces

Caulophyllum thalictroides (blue cohosh)    4 ounces

Viburnum opulus (cramp bark)            4 ounces

Crush well, macerate for three days in a sufficient quantity of diluted alcohol. Transfer to a percolator, treat with diluted alcohol, and reserve the first three pints that pass; then treat with boiling water until exhausted, add two pounds of sugar, evaporate to two pints, and mix with the reserved liquid. Dose: a tablespoon three times a day, or more.

In modern practice, simple tinctures of the above plants are mixed in approximately the same proportions. Note that this omits the constituents extracted in the step with boiling water above, which may be important to extract the principles in mitchella (Felter and Lloyd).

The formula is used by Cook in “all nervous and uterine difficulties incident to females, including weakness of the back, leucorrhea, prolapse, cramps, and persistent menstruation” when accompanied by laxity of the pelvic organs (Cook). The formula was devised by a Thomsonian practitioner, a Dr. Sweet, of Connecticut, in 1826, and was in common use by the Thomsonians throughout New England by 1830.

References

Bloyer, W.E. “Helonias dioica” Eclectic Medical Journal 1898;LVIII(7): 433-434

Cook, William. The Physiomedicalist Dispensatory. Portland, Oregon: Eclectic Medical Publications, 1985 [Reprint of 1869 original]

Felter, H. The Eclectic Materia Medica, Pharmacology, and Therapeutics. Portland, Oregon: Eclectic Medical Publications, 1985 [Reprint of 1922 original]

Felter, H. and Lloyd, J.U. King’s American Dispensatory. Portland, Oregon: Eclectic Medical Publications, 1983 [Reprint of 1898 original]

Ellingwood, F. American Materia Medica, Therapeutics, and Pharmacognosy. Portland, Oregon: Eclectic Medical Publication, 1983 [Reprint of 1919 original]

Mills, S. The Essential Book of Herbal Medicine. London: Penguin Books, 1991

Scudder, J. Specific Medication. Portland, Oregon: Eclectic Medical Publication, 1985 [Reprint of 1870 original]

Trickey, Ruth. Women Hormones and the Menstrual Cycle. St Leonard’s, Australia: Allen and Unwin, 1998
  Copyright 2001 Paul Bergner




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