Melanthium is a genus of 4 species from eastern North America in the Melanthiaceae family commonly known as bunch flowers. Two recent molecular phylogenetic studies have shown that these species fall within Veratrum Section Fuscoveratrum but Flora of North America still considers this genus to be distinct and it is still listed as accepted on The Plant List. From Flora of North America: "The eastern North American species of Melanthium differ from Veratrum primarily in their open inflorescences, which appear delicate and flexible; glabrous leaves; clawed tepals with two distinct, nonmarginal glands on either side of the midrib; and incurving, fugacious stamens adnate to the tepals." Until this is resolved, we will list them both places. Species of this genus are considered poisonous.
Melanthium latifolium Desrousseaux, syn. Veratrum latifolium, is native to the eastern United States, where it grows in moist, shady habitat such as gorges on mesic slopes, particularly in the Appalachian Mountains. This species grows to 1.6 m and flowers irregularly.
Melanthium parviflorum (Michaux) S. Watson, syn. Veratrum parviflorum, occurs throughout the Appalachian Mountains, where it is quite common. It occurs on or near mountain crests. The plant grows to about 1.25 m tall, with a loosely branched inflorescence with few, small flowers. These are a bright emerald green with a distinctly putrid marine water smell according to Aaron Flooden. The images below were taken on the Blue Ridge Parkway in West Virginia by Tom Mitchell.
Melanthium virginicum Linnaeus, syn. Veratrum virginicum, occurs in wet prairies across much of eastern North America at low elevations. Where I saw it, in Illinois, it is now confined by the corn desert to swampy road intersections and the un-farmed land alongside abandoned railroads. Horticulturally it is a very desirable species, which ought to be cultivated much more frequently. However, the fragrance was described by Aaron Flooden on the PBS list as "cloyingly sweet, but with undertones of urine and cow dung with a tendency to produce mild headaches." It flowers most years if well fed. The flowers that make up the large, paniculate inflorescence change in color as they age from white, through greenish to yellow. The filaments are persistent (see second image) and the seed capsules are the most decorative in the genus. These images were taken by Tom Mitchell in south western Illinois in mid July. The farmer on whose land we were taking pictures stopped to chat and was fascinated to discover that this madman had come all the way from England to look at his weeds.
Melanthium woodii (Robbins ex Alph. Wood) Bodkin, syn. Veratrum woodii, is essentially a plant of the Ozark Mountains but there are disjunct populations in the Appalachians as far south as Georgia. It is rather rare and, where it occurs, the populations are typically small, rarely flower and set seed even less frequently. Norlyn Bodkin spent four years studying Melanthium for his PhD in the 1950s and never saw it in flower. The flowers have a distinctly putrid marine water smell according to Aaron Flooden. The first image below was taken in a patch of undisturbed woodland on a steep slope beside a small river in SW Illinois. Note the characteristic manner in which the foliage 'leans' in one direction. The second picture shows a plant flowering in late July in cultivation in the UK and the third shows developing seed capsules on the same plant in late August. All pictures by Tom Mitchell.