Melanthium virginicum L.



CC = 9
CW = -3
MOC = 40

© SRTurner

Family - Liliaceae

Habit - Perennial forb, with short rhizomes, lacking the odor of onion or garlic.

Stem - Aerial stems erect, to 150 cm long, the bases slightly bulbous-thickened and often coated with dense parallel fibers formed from the decayed remains of previous years' leaf bases, unbranched below the inflorescence, pubescent with short, curly hairs.

Melanthium_virginicum_stem1.jpg Lower stem and node.

© SRTurner

Melanthium_virginicum_stem2.jpg Upper stem and nodes.

© SRTurner

Leaves - Numerous, mostly basal, glabrous, those on the aerial stems greatly reduced and mostly bractlike, the basal leaves 20-50 cm long, linear, flat or more often folded longitudinally.

Melanthium_virginicum_base.jpg Basal leaves.

© DETenaglia

Inflorescence - Terminal panicle of numerous flowers, those near the tip sometimes functionally staminate, the remainder usually functionally perfect.

Melanthium_virginicum_inflorescence.jpg Inflorescence.

© SRTurner

Flowers - Subtended by small bracts, with stalks 4-22 mm long, never replaced by bulblets. Perianth 6-12 mm long, the tepals fused at the base, these with a stalklike basal 1/3 and with a pair of large, yellow to greenish brown glands at the base of the expanded, bladelike portion, milky white to pale yellow, turning greenish yellow with age, somewhat pubescent with short curly hairs on the outer (under) surface. Stamens 6, fused to the base of the stalklike portions of the perianth. Styles 3, each with a small stigma. Ovary superior, with 3 locules, each with 4-10 ovules.

Melanthium_virginicum_flowers.jpg Flowers.

© SRTurner

Melanthium_virginicum_functional.jpg Stamens and pistil.

© SRTurner


© SRTurner

Fruits - Capsules 10-18 mm long, ovoid, deeply 3-lobed, the lobes beaked with the persistent styles.

Melanthium_virginicum_infructescence.jpg Infructescence.

© SRTurner

Melanthium_virginicum_fruit.jpg Fruit.

© SRTurner

Flowering - June - August.

Habitat - Wet to mesic prairies, fens, streambanks, railroads.

Origin - Native to the U.S.

Lookalikes - None when flowering. Vegetatively, the plants resemble several others, including species of Veratrum and Stenanthium.

Other info. - This striking and unusual plant has been found in scattered locations throughout Missouri and the eastern continental U.S., but is not particularly common anywhere. Experience suggests that it is found mostly in moist, high quality prairie habitats, though Yatskievych specifically mentions "degraded remnant prairie" as a habitat preference. Its conservation coefficient (2015) is 9. When not flowering its basal leaves can be confused with those of closely related plants. The distinction lies in the leaf width, with those of Melanthium being broader than those of Stenanthium but much narrower than the elliptic to broadly oblanceolate basal leaves of Veratrum woodii.

This species is toxic due to the array of solanum- and veratrum-class steroidal alkaloids it contains. The pronounced biological activity of this plant and its close relatives has been known for centuries, prompting their attempted use in medicine (or for poison). A 1633 treatise by Gerard (The Herbal or General History of Plants) stated that the root of Veratrum album "procureth vomite mightly, wherein consisteth his chiefe virtue, and by that means voideth all superfluous slime and naughtie humours."

A synonym is Veratrum virginicum (L.) W.T. Aiton. The current fashion seems to be to segregate this and several other closely related species into their own family, the Melanthiaceae. Although this species requires several years of growth before flowering, it would make an interesting and unusual garden subject in an open area with abundant moisture.

Photographs taken at Providence Prairie, Lawrence County, MO., 6-18-05 (DETenaglia); also at Shaw Nature Reserve, Franklin County, MO, 6-26-2013 and 7-1-2013, and at Tucker Prairie Natural Area, Callaway County, MO, 7-3-2015 (SRTurner).