by Chip Carroll
False Unicorn (Chamaelirium luteum) is a very unique perennial herb native to western Massachusetts to Michigan and eastern Canada, south to Florida and Mississippi (Newcomb 1977, USDA-NRCS 2005). Although the range is extensive, the occurrence of this elusive herb is rather limited and is most commonly found in the south. A member of the Liliaceae Family, false unicorn is somewhat nondescript when not in flower. Plants consist of both males and females, typically the females are the only plants that produce seed although both the male and female plants flower. Commonly referred to as colic root, devil's bit, fairy wand, helonias root, star grub root or grub root, this species is often confused with true unicorn (Aletris farinosa). The rhizome of Chamaelirium curves upward at the tip giving it the appearance of having a horn and has been cited as the source for its common name; false unicorn. It is the rhizome of this plant that is sought after medicinally. Unfortunately; much like American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), harvesting the rhizome also kills the entire plant making this species critical to cultivate. Although false unicorn has been highly valued as one of the most reliable tonics available for women, many herbalists and herbal companies will not buy, sell or trade this species because it is currently sourced exclusively from the wild with no major cultivation of this plant taking place anywhere. This, along with an increase in usage, demand, and a higher monetary value being placed on the raw material create what may be a great opportunity for aspiring herb growers, especially those in the South.
Opportunity? Because there isn’t a history of cultivating this plant, information is limited. Growers will just have to experiment to determine what works best for them. Several commercial gardens already sell seeds or plants, but this is a fairly recent phenomenon. Most of the information below is taken from a few sources working on a few sites in North Carolina, New England, Ohio and Oregon.
False Unicorn can be cultivated in zones 5–8. It is generally thought to be a 6-8 year crop from seeds or cuttings. In the wild in North Carolina it prefers shaded, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic soils with a pH range of 4.5 - 6.0. Researchers there have grown it under shade cloths but found that it did not do as well as other plants in that setting. Woods-cultivated plants nearby are more successful; the researcher surmises that differences in soil composition and mulch depth may be responsible. (Greenfield and Davis 2004, Persons and Davis 2005).
Richo Cech of Horizon Herbs in Oregon is growing plants descended from North Carolina stock. He recommends sowing seeds or rhizome cuttings (as small as a ¼ inch). They can be planted as soon as the seed is ripe or stored in a cool, moist environment to be sown in a cold frame in the fall. After establishment they can be transplanted to a suitable permanent spot. He states that growing in controlled conditions in pots for one or two years improves the seedlings’ chances for success. He also recommends an annual mulch of compost in fall or early spring. Person’s and Davis (2005) discuss the ease with which false unicorn is grown from seed. An intern found that differing treatment of the seeds did not seem to affect germination rates of about 80%. They found that in contrast to what Cech (2003) and others have reported, cold stratification was unnecessary with greenhouse cultivation, and are unsure why this is true. They therefore recommend trying both methods.
I’ve worked directly with a couple of growers in southeastern Ohio who have planted a pound or two of the rhizomes in their forests with good survivability, but all these were planted specifically for propagation and restoration purposes and it will be sometime before any of them make a harvest for market. In 2000, we planted over a dozen beds of False Unicorn here in Meigs County, Ohio. These beds have been growing for almost 7 years now, appear to be healthy and consistently produce flowers. Although they have provided opportunities for people to view this plant and become more familiar with its habits, all preliminary indications are that they aren’t really growing. In 2005, Amy Brush with the Tai Sophia Institute in Maryland did a study on these beds to see what kind of weight increase we had on the rhizomes over 5 years of growth. The study showed that the roots actually had stayed the same or had shrunk in size. Although this news was a bit discouraging, it has helped to shed light on what may be needed to bring this plant under a meaningful cultivation system. One problem with our beds might be the fact that False Unicorn just doesn’t naturally occur around here. Another issue with the beds is that they were never heavily amended and weren’t consistently maintained. Who knows? With a little more tender love and care, these plants may yet begin to grow. All of the rhizomes we planted were whole and not divided; maybe they were already at their capacity for growth? Perhaps divided rhizomes would have shown a weight increase. As you can see, there is more than one technique that may prove successful and a strong need for more experimenting and research. The method an individual chooses may depend on seed or stock source, environment, and goals of the grower. If you live in an area where False Unicorn occurs naturally, you are likely in the best position of being able to answer these questions and cultivate it as a crop.
False unicorn is being sold on the internet, but industry has stopped using it for the most part, due to its at-risk status and a lack of cultivated-seed sources.
According to Greenfield and Davis (2004), “false unicorn root garnered $700,000 in sales in 2001 [and] wild harvesters harvested 13,500 pounds of root which sold for $35–50 per pound. This consumption was two and one-half times the amount of material consumed in 1997 and a 37.2% increase from the year 2000. The dollar value of consumption for this material has increased from approximately $412,000 in 2000. Demand continues to increase at a slow but steady rate. From 1995 to 1999, Chamaelirium traded in a range between $25 and $35 per pound. In 2001, prices ranged from $40–$50 per pound of dried root and in 2003 reached $45–$65 per pound. Buyers are widely dispersed throughout North America and Europe. Suppliers are highly concentrated. Current supplies are wild-harvested on a very small scale throughout its natural range, particularly in the southeastern United States. Experienced brokers and professionals move the material through the supply chain. The market, in terms of pounds, is small relative to other botanicals. This material does not have a great deal of visibility beyond the small core of botanical users and herbalists. Of the top manufacturers and distributors of nutraceuticals / botanicals in North America and Europe, 8% offer this material as a stand-alone product, and 11% offer this material as either a stand-alone product or as part of a multi-constituent supplement. Demand for the root is expected to remain strong.”
More recently, Persons and Davis (2005) say, “The market for cultivated false unicorn is not large now. We conducted a marketing study, which predicted a rising demand for this herb [see preceding paragraph], and many within the industry support our findings. Currently, most of the market is for dried root. There is also some demand for false unicorn planting stock, sold as dormant roots or small plants in flats. It can also be sold in 4-inch pots. In 2004 buyers paid wild harvesters between $27.50 and $45 per dried pound of root. Seeds sold for over $200 per ounce and dried root sold retail for $100 per pound. [It] is definitely a plant that bears watching, there is a lot of talk about it in the industry. If the market for this plant suddenly takes off, those who have it in the field will be the ones who get the premium prices because there will be so little available. If you have the space to grow and are willing to invest in the planting stock, you might want to put a small area in on speculation.”
I have heard from several herbalists and industry personnel who say that they would be using this herb if they had a sustainable supply. Although I suspect that there are as many as a dozen people in the U.S. who may have begun cultivating this species in earnest over the last 5 years or so, there is still certainly “room to grow” for others wishing to try their hand at cultivating this valuable herb. At the very least, everyone should have a specimen or two growing in his or her herb gardens.
Newcomb, Lawrence. 1977. Newcomb's Wildflower Guide . Little, Brown and Company, NewYork , NY .
Cech, Richo. 2002. Growing at-risk medicinal herbs: cultivation, conservation, and ecology. pp. 239–251. Horizon Herbs, Williams, OR.
Persons, W. Scott and Jeanine M. Davis. 2005. Growing and Marketing Ginseng, Goldenseal, and Other Woodland Medicinals. Bright Mountain Books, Inc., Fairview , NC .
Appalachian Forest Resource Center 2005, Plants to Watch. http://www.appalachianforest.org/ptw_false_unicorn.html
Chip is the Farm Manager & NTFP Research Education and Demonstration Coordinator for the Rural Action Research & Education Center in Rutland, Ohio. Chip began volunteering at The Center in 1998 and was hired as the Assistant Farm Manager by Frontier Natural Products Co-op in 2000. Chip works closely with many of the medicinal herb growers in the region and has been cultivating medicinal plants on his farm for the past 8 years. Chip also runs a small botanical & landscaping business Woodlandwise Botanicals.