Saturday, February 19, 2011

Erythronium americanum - Adder's Tongue

Erythronium americanum - Adder's Tongue, also called Dog's Tooth Violet, Serpent's Tongue, Snake Leaf, Yellow Snowdrop, Lamb's Tongue, Rattlesnake Violet, Christ's Spear, Faun Lily and Trout Lily, is a very beautiful early spring flower of the Eastern United States of America, belonging to the Lily family. It grows in damp, open woodlands from New Brunswick to Florida and westwards to Ontario and Arkansas.  Prefers slightly acid well-drained soil, plenty of humus and requires semi-shade. There are about 30 species of Erythronium growing across the country with colors ranging from violet, white, cream and yellow.

The root is a deeply buried, bulb-like corm, light brown, about 1 inch long, and solid with white starchy flesh. The leaves are oval, fleshy, and mottled like a trout's belly, two or three leaf blades grow from the base (an infertile plant will have only one leaf), about 2 1/2 inches long and 1 inch wide.  The stem is slender, a few inches high, leafless, 2 to 3 inches long, and terminates in a handsome, large, pendulous, lily-like flower, an inch across, bright yellow in colour, often tinged with purple and finely dotted inside at the base, and with six stamens. 

This is a plant that relies more on the spreading abilities of its underground root system (corms) than on seed production from its flowers.  Erythronium is pollinated by ants through a process called myrmecochory - the ants carry the seeds to their nest and feed on the nutritious appendage attached to each seed and leave the rest to germinate.  It flowers in the latter part of April and early in May.  At night the flower closes, opening as the day advances, but on warm sunny days the six petals fold upwards.  The foliage dies back in summer, but reappears in the spring. This plant will grow from seed, but requires winter/spring stratification and takes 4-7 years to become a mature plant.

The fresh leaves having emollient and anti-scrofulous properties are mostly used in the form of a stimulating poultice, applied to swellings, tumours and scrofulous ulcers. The powdered root of the European species was once used, with milk, for intestinal worms in children. The root is rather acrid when fresh, but becomes mealy when dry.  Gather edible fresh leaves, bulbs and flowers in spring and root in summer to fall.  Dry the root for later medicinal herb use. 

The fresh roots and leaves, stewed in milk, makes a fast healing application useful for tuberculosis involving diseased glands, scurvy, hiccups, dropsy, bleeding at the mouth or nose (the dried powdered herb is applied as a styptic), and the plant's juice can be infused in apple cider as well to relieve similar symtoms along with hematemesis and bleeding from the lower bowels. Combined with Rough Horsetail (Equisetum hyemale) it was used for bleeding and ulcers of the breast and bowel or for tumors and inflammations. Simmering it in olive oil is considered a panacea for wounds and inflammations. It relieves flu; spurs urination; helps the liver, stomach, and worms in children (seed, or flowers infused in white wine) and has also been used for gout.    Caution:  Trout Lily can be strongly emetic in some people (it makes you throw up a lot).

"Heinerman's Encyclopedia of Healing Herbs and Spices" gives a popular gypsy remedy to make an ointment from the leaves and flowers of adder's tongue. "One pint of extra virgin olive oil is gently warmed over a low heat. Then as much finely cut adder's tongue leaf and flower are added as the oil can absorb. They are permitted to gently brew but not boil, being stirred every so often with a wooden spoon. Then 1 cup of melted beeswax is added and the mixture cooked for another 5-7 minutes. The contents are then poured into empty baby food jars and kept uncovered until well set." 

The bulb is edible as a root vegetable, cooked or dried, and can be ground into flour. The leaves can also be cooked as a leaf vegetable. In Japan, Erythronium japonicum is called katakuri, and the bulb is processed to produce starch, which is used for food and other purposes.  But, as with many things in life, it should be eaten in moderation for too many could cause mild vomiting.

Erythronium is also widely grown as an ornamental plant, with numerous hybrids and cultivars having been selected for garden use. Popular variations include Erythronium 'Pagoda', E. 'Sundisc', E. 'Joanna', E. 'Kondo', E. 'Citronella', E. californicum 'White Beauty', and E. 'Rosalind'. Propagation is best by seed in autumn or by division of bulbs, depending on species. Some species propagate vegetatively.

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