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.
Scape ten to eighteen inches high, rather thick and flesh-', hollow, nearly naked ; leaves lance-spatulate, about as long as the scape, one to one and a half inches wide ; racemes short; pedicels as long as the flowers, colored; flowers purple, segments obtuse, with blue anthers. (Wood's Class-Book of Botany. See also Gray's Manual of Botany of the Northern States.)
IT is remarkable that while some plants seem to make their way easily, and are found over thousands of square miles of territory, others seem either incapable of wide dispersion, or, if they ever were capable of such dispersion, have lost ground, and are at present confined to very narrow limits. The pretty "wild flower" to which this chapter is devoted is a good example of the plants last mentioned. It is not uncommon in some parts of New Jersey, but beyond these and a few localities in Pennsylvania and Virginia (according to Grays Manual) it is unknown.
To the student this plant is especially interesting as one serving to illustrate a leading division of the great family of lilies,
- the Melanthacece. The flowers belonging to the section given to lilies proper - Liliaceae - have but a single consolidated pistil, though there is normally a three-celled ovary, and the anthers are turned inwards; but those in this section - Mclau-thacccc - have their styles distinct, and the anthers are turned outwards. There are, of course, other distinctions, but these are the leading ones. Of the genus Helonias there arc few species, and even these have been placed in other genera by various botanists.
Helonias bullata has a good deal of interest, even to the common observer. The roots are said to be "tuberous" by the describes, but so far as our experience goes there is only a simple fleshy root stock, extending deep down into the ground, from which numerous fibres grow. The plant flowers in May, and the leaves of the old year sometimes remain on during the winter, and then do justice to the description, "about as long as the scape." In our specimen, kindly furnished by Mr. I. C. Martindale from a locality not far from Camden, N. J., the old leaves are gone, and the new ones not fully developed. The "nearly naked scape" is seen to have four or five very small scale-like bracts, and a great peculiarity noticeable is this, that there is neither any sign of scales just under the pedicels (which in fact is not uncommon in many plants), nor of what we might call "decurrence" or running down in the pedicels. The stem, it will be seen, is entirely round, and the flowers come out at right angles, and seem as smooth at the connection with the main stem as if they were pins stuck in. This singular appearance is heightened by the color. There is no shading off, as is general in nature. There is an immediate change from the green main stem to the purple of the pedicel. It is an additional point of singularity that when the flower fades the pedicels become green.
The plant has no common name that we know of. A quaint old English writer says that it "comes from America, where it grows only near Philadelphia, and is called 'Star-flower'by the natives." But this is no doubt a mistake, as the "Star-flower" of the "natives" there, as elsewhere in the United States, is the Hypoxis. The generic name Helonias is said to be derived from the Greek, signifying a swamp, and is given from the fact that the plant grows in swampy places, though it does not affect these situations more than many other plants; and bullata is from the Latin "bulla," which is the name of round "nail-heads" or studded ornaments on castle doors and other objects. We do not know that this flower has ever been taken as a copy for a "stud " or similar ornament, but few could offer a better model. The mathematical proportions of the parts and the harmony of each with the other is very pleasing. The three-lobed and in itself rather heavy ovary is yet in admirable contrast with the light-lined pistils which curve back on the apex of each division of the three cells. The lightness of the petals in comparison with the heavier ovarium is balanced by their double size, and their numerous repetitions of curved lines are relieved by the straight lines of the stamens which stand out above the petals. Then again we see that a pair of petals will make a perfect triangle, either with one whole cell-division of the triangular ovary, or equally as well with the bay formed by parts of two cells or with two whole cells. We have a triangular ovary, three pairs of oval petals forming three more triangles, and the whole forming a regular circular flower. In our drawing the anthers have burst, and are discharging pollen; but before they reach this condition they are of a pale blue, and in this state the flowers would perhaps commend themselves still more in art designs.
In the absence of any recognized popular name, it will not perhaps be inappropriate if we suggest Stud-Flower for it.
We do not know that the plant has been of much use to mankind. Lindley says that a decoction is used in obstructions of the bowels; but it is well to remember that the whole tribe of Mclanthacccz is a very poisonous one, and medical experiments with them in unskilled hands will be very dangerous.
We know of no successful attempts at cultivating it. In all the instances that have come to our knowledge the plants dwindled from year to year, soon disappearing altogether. It is quite possible that it is a real swamp-loving plant, and may not find water enough in ordinary garden soil. Many plants have seeds which only germinate where the ground is wet, and they must, of course, unless removed by art, live and die where the seeds sprout; but such plants generally do better when transplanted to drier ground. If this plant is indeed absolutely restricted to swampy ground, it is an exception to rule, and this fact would give special appropriateness to its botanical name of "swamp-lover."
1. Crown of the root with growing spring leaves.
2. Scape, showing the hollow stem.
3. Showing the peculiar insertion of the flower.
4. Full face view, showing the harmonious proportion of lines.