Coptis trifolia, Goldthread - 3 (1)

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(Coptis trifolia ssp. groenlandica)
Family: Ranunculaceae (Crowfoot or Buttercup)

by Janice Stiefel

Other Names: Yellowroot, Canker-Root, Vegetable Gold, Coptis, Mouth-Root, Dye Root, Yaller Root, Golden-Seal.

Range: Circumboreal; Alaska south to British Columbia, Iowa and New Jersey to North Carolina

Habitat: Damp, mossy woods and bogs.
Description:  Solitary white flowers and lustrous, evergreen basal leaves rise from a thread-like, yellow underground stem. The flowers are 1/2-inch (1-cm) wide with 5 to 7 white, petal-like sepals and very small club-like petals. There are numerous stamens and several pistils. The leaves are 1 to 2 inches (2.5 to 5 cm) wide, all basal, palmately divided into 3 leaflets with scalloped, toothed margins. The fruit is a dry pod, splitting open along one side.     Height:  3 to 6 inches (7 to 15 cm). Flowering:  May to July.
Comments:  Although its flowers are small, patches of glistening, evergreen leaves catch your eyes. In 1807, it is recorded that American Indians stained their porcupine quills and feathers with a yellow dye made from the roots. Canadian Indians used the roots and leaves to dye skins, wool and flax yellow. As late as 1908, the roots brought a relatively high price.

Medicinal Use:  Indians and colonists chewed the underground stem to treat canker sores and mouths irritated by smoking too much tobacco. It was made into a tea for use as an eyewash. A decoction made in conjunction with Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) has been found to destroy the appetite for intoxicating liquors. In New England, it was valued as a local application for thrush in children. Recordings from 1785 report that the roots were frequently used as ingredients in gargles for sore throats.
 A 1945 French Canadian source says, “The boiled roots are used for serious colds and respiratory troubles. A linen is soaked in a tea of the plant and applied to the eyes. The Canadians, without doubt, borrowed the knowledge of this plant from the Indians.”

Name Origin: The genus name, Coptis, is from the Greek word, coptein, meaning “to cut,” alluding to the divided leaves. The species name, trifolia, means “three-leaved or three leaflets.” The second species name, groenlandica, means “of Greenland.”
 The common name refers to the bright yellow, thread-like rhizomes (underground stems). Many tribes of Indians used the root as a remedy for sore or ulcerated mouths, hence one of the plant’s other names—Canker-Root.

Author’s Note: Goldthread flourishes abundantly on our property, which is adjacent to the Mud Lake Wildlife Area near Bailey’s Harbor in Door County, Wisconsin. We are surrounded by the most intriguing, untamed conglomeration of utopia one could ever imagine. The Cedar, Tamarack, Black Spruce, Hemlock, Balsam, Birch, Aspen, and White Pine forest hosts a myriad of wildflowers, such as Showy Lady’s-Slipper, Yellow Lady’s-Slipper, Early Coralroot Orchid, Wild Strawberry, Dwarf Raspberry, Three-Leaved Solomon’s Plume, Twinflower, Starflower, Clintonia, Wood Nymph, Purple Gerardia, Brook Lobelia, Pale Spike Lobelia, Blue-Eyed Grass, Fringed Polygala, Grass-of-Parnassus, Hooded and Twisted Lady’s Tresses, Fringed Gentian, Bunchberry, Palmate-Leaf Sweet Coltsfoot, Shinleaf and Round-Leaved Pyrola, Northern White Violet, and many more. Royal, Bulblet, Marsh, Cinnamon, Oak, and  Maidenhair Fern, Dwarf Horsetail, along with intricate and delicate club mosses, mosses,  liverworts, lichens and unusual fungi add to the vast variety of flora. It would be impossible to list the sedges and grasses that are interspersed as well.
 In the middle of this paradise is a 3-acre (1.2-ha) open field filled with Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea), several alien species, plus native prairie plants we have introduced. On warm summer days, many species of butterflies (including the Dorcas Copper, Indian and Arctic Skippers), moths, damselflies, skimmers and dragonflies drift along the meandering pathways that we have created through the woods, the open field and around the pond we dug after purchasing the property.  This area is also the home of the Hines Emerald Dragonfly, a species listed as federally endangered in the U.S.
 My husband, John, and I feel so privileged to own and observe this special “little corner of the world,” even though we realize it is actually ours for just a fleeting moment in time.
copywright 2002 Janice Stiefel

[BOX: Cultivation Information

According to William Cullina’s Growing and Propagating Wildflowers of the United States and Canada, “Goldthreads are relatively easy to establish in cool climates and damp, acid soils under deciduous or evergreen trees. They put up only one flush of leaves in the spring, so do not worry if your transplants just sit there the first year—underground, they are sending out new rhizomes and roots and should triple in size the following year.” Cullina recommends sowing fresh seed outdoors as soon as seed is ripe (mid- to late summer). He also says that it is easy to divide Coptis by lifting individual rosettes along with an inch or two of rhizome in spring, or in summer after it has hardened.

Janice Stiefel is a naturalist, writer and photographer who lives in Door County, Wisconsin. She is the editor of Wisconsin Flora, published by the Botanical Club of Wisconsin, and the Wisconsin Entomological Society Newsletter.