False Unicorn Root – Chamaelirium luteum

False Unicorn Root – Chamaelirium luteum, photo by Steven Foster

False Unicorn Root – Chamaelirium luteum, photo by Steven Foster

Overall At-Risk Score: 49

Latin name:

Chamaelirium luteum

Common Name:

Blazingstar, Devil’s Bit, Fairywand, False Unicorn (Root), Helonias

Family:

Melanthiaceae (Bunchflower family)

Geographic Region:

False unicorn root can be found in most of the eastern U.S. Specifically, it is found in the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. It is also found, rarely, in the southern portion of the Canadian province of Ontario.

Habitat:

False unicorn root prefers shady meadows and forests and moist, acidic soil.

Lifespan:

Perennial

Reproduction:

False unicorn root plants all have a distinct sex, and only the female plant is capable of producing seeds. These seeds are dispersed by both the wind and via passing wildlife getting the seeds stuck in their fur.

Ability to Withstand Disturbance and Overharvest:

Overharvest is the biggest concern when it comes to the wellbeing of the false unicorn root population because harvesting the rhizome–the part most commonly used for medicinal purposes–also kills the entire plant.

Status of Endangered/Threatened (by state):

Chamaelirium luteum is listed as “Threatened” in New York and “Endangered” in Connecticut, Indiana, and Massachusetts.

Chamaelirium luteum has not yet been evaluated by the IUCN Red List.

Part of Plant Used/Active Medicinal Compounds:

The rhizome of false unicorn root has been found to have a combination of steroidal saponins, such as aglycone diosgenin and chamaelirin. It has been used historically to treat menstrual issues and in an attempt to improve fertility and has modern uses as an anti-inflammatory, as well as a treatment for ovarian cysts.

Demand:

Demand for this plant has been steadily increasing over recent years, though it still remains relatively unknown when compared to more popular plants on the “At-Risk” list like Ginseng. It is commonly used both for its medicinal purposes, as well as a decorative plant in cottage gardens.

Wild Harvesting Impact On Other Species and Lookalikes:

Wild harvesting false unicorn root patches involves disturbing large areas of the soil, which can disrupt the ecosystem and allow invasive plants to become established.

Recommended Alternatives For Industrial and Home Use:

Almost all false unicorn root is wild-harvested, so it is best to avoid using it for medicinal purposes. Cultivating your own seeds is a viable option for those with extra room in their gardens, however, and more places are beginning to cultivate Chamaelirium in order to sell the seeds and make them more accessible for people.

You can find an article we wrote on false unicorn root cultivation here

Citations


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False Unicorn Cultivation

by Chip Carroll False Unicorn (Chamaelirium luteum) is a very unique perennial herb native to western Massachusetts to Michigan and eastern Canada, south to Florida and Mississippi (Newcomb 1977, USDA-NRCS 2005). Although the range is extensive, the occurrence of this elusive herb is rather limited and is most commonly found in the south. A member of the Liliaceae Family, false unicorn is somewhat nondescript when not in flower. Plants consist of both males and females, ...
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