Devils Bits, Fairy Wands, False Unicorns

Reader Contribution by Barry Glick
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Sounds like a recipe for a witches brew doesn’t it? Quite the contrary though. What we have here are three of the many “Common Names” of a remarkable, ornamental, native, shade tolerant garden plant that shows some very interesting promise as a medicinal plant.

Chamaelirium luteum, a member of the Lily family, is a dioecious plant (Male & Female flowers are produced on separate plants), that can be found growing in moist thickets in just about every state east of the Mississippi and in several Eastern Canadian provinces. It grows from a Trillium-like rhizome and flowers for quite an extended period of time in the early spring.

Unlike many spring flowering wildflowers, this plant is not ephemeral. In fact, the basal rosette of foliage that produces the central flower stems is present year round. Male plants attain heights of 24” – 30” in flower, but I’ve seen female plants soar to heights of over 48”. The small, creamy white flowers are produced in abundance on the stiff, firm, erect stems and it’s no stretch of the imagination as to where the common name “Fairy Wand” comes from. Even the seed heads of this plant are attractive as is the foliage.

The name of the genus evolves from the Greek word Chamai, meaning dwarf and lirion meaning lily. Although in the wild you’ll find Chamaelirium luteum mostly in rich, moist soil, I’ve had great success growing it in average soils, even on weedy road banks, where I forgot that I had planted it and rediscovered the lost plants almost 10 years later. They hadn’t grown much, but were still hanging on and very happy to be rescued and transplanted to a richer, continually weeded section of the garden. These plants have rewarded me for the positive move with multiple new rosettes and several flower stems year after year.

Although “Devil’s Bit” has a wide range, it’s rare to see a very large colony in one place, you usually find them scattered about. Native Americans used the roots of the plants medicinally for a host of ailments, mostly centered around menstruation. They believed that it also prevented miscarriages and improved fertility. Nowadays, modern medicinal research is bearing these uses out and investigation has shown that it may have beneficial properties for treating pregnancy problems and ovarian cysts. Other medicinal uses focus on Chamaelirium’s anti-inflammatory and diuretic properties.

In the garden, Chamaelirium luteum makes an attractive statement along the front of a path or in a group setting and will be a welcome addition to any shade garden. Propagation is easy by rhizome division or by seed, although it can take 5-7 years for seed grown plants to reach maturity and flower.

Till our next horticultural excursion,

Peace out, Glickster

Barry Glick founded Sunshine Farm and Gardens in 1972 on 60 acres in Greenbrier County, West Virginia. His plant collection now numbers more than 10,000 taxa, many unknown to cultivation. Several of these plants have been introduced to gardening in recent years. Barry exchanges seeds and plants with people at arboretums, botanic gardens, nurseries and private gardens in virtually every country in the world. Peruse Barry’s speakers series here and read the rave reviews hereIf you have any questions, would like to chat about any plants that Barry offers, send an email to his personal email addressRead all of Barry’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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