Plant of the Week
Colic Root (Aletris farinosa)
By Christopher David Benda
Colic root is an attractive member of the Narthecium family (Nartheciaceae), although it formerly belonged to the Lily family. The name “Aletris” refers to one of the stages of an ancient ritual young women would go through to reach puberty. The second stage is when a young girl learns to bake bread, and “Aletris” means “a female slave who grinds the meal,” referring to the powered appearance of the plants. The epithet “farinosa” means “mealy” and further emphasizes the floury appearance of this plant. The name colic root refers to the root of this plant being used to treat colic (excessive crying), among other ailments like indigestion and lack of appetite. It contains the steroid saponin.
This plant is single stemmed and with thick, short rootstock that resembles a rhizome. Each plant has a lovely wand-like spike of white flowers that are tubular, with six petal-like tepals that are fused except at the tip where they are slightly flared. Each flower has six orange, inserted, stamens. Fertilized flowers form tiny seeds that developed in capsules. When ripe, the capsules split open and release the seeds to the wind. The leaves are primarily basal, but some smaller leaves are alternately arranged on the flowering stem. They are lanceolate, smooth margined, glabrous, and parallel veined.
Colic root a perennial that grows up to 2 ½ feet tall. It prefers open, moist, sandy areas where other vegetation is sparse, but also occurs in drier and partially shaded woodlands and grasslands. It is a conservative species that is primarily found at rich sites, but minimally impacted roadsides can still harbor this species.
Its range includes mostly eastern, coastal states, but it is also represented in areas around the Great Lakes. It is considered rare in many places throughout its range. It blooms as early as April in the southern parts of its range, but in most places, it blooms in mid-summer.