This section is from the book "The Native Flowers And Ferns Of The United States ", by Thomas Meehan. Also available from Amazon: The Native Flowers and Ferns of the United States in Their Botanical, Horticultural, And Popular Aspects.
Root red, fibrous; stem mostly simple, villous above; leaves linear-sword-shaped, smooth, the lower ones crowded and equitant, the other smaller and remote; flowers two-ranked, crowded in lateral and terminal compound woolly cymes, yellowish within; exterior lobes of the perianth linear; valves of the capsule separating from the placentae; seeds black. (Chapman's Flora of the Southern United States. See also Gray's Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States, and Wood's Class-Book of Botany.")
ONE of the earliest of American botanical authors, Thomas Walter, who in 1788 wrote the " Flora Caroliniana," mentions the plant we now illustrate, and called it Anonymus tinctoria, which would be literally "a dyer's plant without a name." In the early part of the present century it came under the notice of Pursh, who believed it to be a Dilatris, a small genus hitherto found only at the Cape of Good Hope. Michaux, before him, had supposed it was identical with a genus named by Schreber in 1789 in honor of the distinguished botanist,
L'Heritier, in which genus the celebrated "looking-glass plant" is found. It was not till 1821 that its true position as a distinct genus was determined by Stephen Elliott, who wrote the " Sketch of the Botany of South Carolina and Georgia," and who named it Lachnanthes - the name it still bears. This little piece of history shows how interesting the plant must be to the student, when so many excellent botanists failed to discover its true relationship; and it proves that Walter was not much to blame when in apparent despair he declared the genus to be "anonymous."
As the name Heritiera in connection with this plant, though no longer used, will often be met with by those studying the history of American Botany in the early part of this century, it may be remarked that L'Heritier was conspicuous for his opposition to the use of colored plates in botanical works. He thought they never could be made sufficiently correct to answer any good purpose, and we are tempted to reproduce his opinion here, as showing by our " Flowers and Ferns of the United States" how wonderful has been the progress of art, which not only makes colored plates sufficiently and wholly accurate, but makes it so by machinery ! Only a very few copies of L'Heritier's drawings were colored; and these, as he tells us, only at the especial request of a few friends. L'Heritier was born in Paris in 1746, of wealthy parents, and early in life had the charge of the forests in the department of the Seine. He was one of those rare men who find something to study in everything that comes before them; and thus in the performance of his duty as a forester, he was attracted to the wild flowers, and from this rose to be an eminent botanist. He took an active part in bringing on the downfall of monarchial institutions, and which finally resulted in the French revolution. He died in August, 1800, having been murdered on his own grounds, it was believed by a worthless debauchee in the shape of his own son. One biography of him says, "a victim to science," though exactly how science thus stimulated his murder does not appear. Elliott's name Lach-nanthes seems to be derived from two Greek words - lachne, wool, and anthos, flower, from the striking character of the flowers; and, as the plant has not received any distinctive popular name, we have proposed "Wool-flower" to supply the deficiency. It is often spoken of as the " Blood-wort," "Blood-root," and "Red-root;" but as these names are used indiscriminately for other and very different plants, it is hardly worth an effort to retain them especially for this. All these names, as also the specific name tinctoria, come from its reddish root, which seems to have been in some repute in the past as a dye. Redoute, a French writer on lilies, to which this plant was once referred, says that the roots and seed vessels give by simple infusion a beautiful red dye, which is, however, less permanent than other dyes of the same character. It is probably in little use now. Dr. F. Peyre Porcher, in the " Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests," merely remarks: "It is distinguished, says Wilson, for yielding a beautiful dye; hence the name." He also notes that " the root is astringent and tonic."
If, however, the root is of little consequence now in the arts, all our readers will admit that it has served our artist well in aiding him to make a beautiful picture out of what otherwise would have been very poor material; and it is worthy of note that in all the other illustrations of this plant that we have seen the roots have been omitted, though not only would they have added to the beauty of the illustration, but also have suggested an explanation of the name. Still, as a mere matter of beauty, the arrangement of the leaves will please the critical admirer. A bunch of them grows in the flat fan-like form represented in our plate. These leaves are flat and shining. They have a very artificial look in comparison with the usual works of nature; and as each one clasps the flower stem just opposite to the other and with remarkable regularity, the artificial character of the whole mass, though in the popular sense of the word unnatural, is particularly pleasing.
But the main interest in the plant will come from the botanical student, and centre in the character of the inflorescence. The flower in its structure may be said to be intermediate between an Iris and an Amaryllis, or that it is one of the Iris family in a state of progress towards an Amaryllis. An Amaryllis has six stamens, while an Iris has but three; but plants of the order to which Lachnanthes belongs are arranged for six stamens, while retaining the flat disposition of the leaves so common to the Iris family. Though arranged for six stamens, very often there are but three, as in Lachnanthes we are now describing (Fig. 3), but we know they are arranged for six, and that three must be abortive, because the stamens are opposite the petals, showing thereby that they belong to the second whorl or verticil of three - the typical number in endogenous plants. If the first whorl had not proved abortive, they would have alternated with the petals, as the sepals do.
It is said by Endlicher that the primordial leaves which form the cells of the ovary, are also opposite the petals, and if so it would indicate that there has been a further abortion of a whorl above the perfect stamens. It is quite likely that in these cases the aborted parts will sometimes show indications of reappearance, and the watchfulness for these modifications will give great zest to those who are interested in that delightful department of Botany - now known as morphology.
The "Wool-flower" is not a very common plant. Our drawing was made from a specimen collected in Rhode Island by Mr. Jackson Dawson, and which is perhaps its most northern limit. Though it is a native of New Jersey, Dr. Willis, the author of a catalogue of the plants of that State, reports it as being very scarce. It becomes more common as we go southward to Florida, inhabiting ditches and ponds, but being confined chiefly to districts near the coasts. One of the most remarkable facts connected with its distribution is its existence in Kansas, according to Professor Snow's catalogue of Kansas plants. It does not appear to have been found in Iowa, Nebraska, Arkansas, or any of the neighboring States.
It does not seem to have been ever cultivated in our country, though Paxton tells us that it was introduced into England in 1812, and regarded as "a pretty plant" for that purpose. Judging from its natural conditions it would grow better as a pot plant, with the pot standing in a saucer of water, or treated as one would the common Calla, in order to do well.
1. Portion of a root stock, bearing a flower stem
Fig. 2, of the natural size.
Fig. 3. Flower somewhat enlarged, showing its woolly character, its three stamens, and simple awl-like pistil.