The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, March 5, 2010



Photo by Kay Fairweather

Goldthread is a native wildflower. By featuring it now you may think I am over anxious for spring (and you wouldn’t be wrong) but I chose it because it is an evergreen plant and as such it is more conspicuous now before all the other plants green up and mask it.

Name: Goldthread is the most frequently used name for this plant which also goes by the names of Canker Root and Mouth Root. The botanical name is Coptis trifolia subspecies groenlandica. Sometimes the subspecies name is dropped and you will find it in books as just C. trifolia; in other books you may find it listed as C. groenlandica. The genus name is derived from the Greek word for cut, and the species name describes the three-part leaves. The common name is an accurate description of the underground stem or rhizome which is a strong golden yellow color and very fine and thread-like.

When and where seen: On February 28 I saw a lot of Goldthread in Great Brook Farm State Park along the sides of the Tophet Trail and Heartbreak Ridge. I have seen it other years in the Towle woods. You are most likely to find it in places that have been undisturbed for a long time. It is a perennial plant and spreads as its gold thread-like rhizome rambles underground and puts up new leaves. It is native to Greenland (hence the groenlandica name) but is also native in Asia, Canada, and the northeast quadrant of the U.S. down to North Carolina.

Distinguishing characteristics: The plant is easy to recognize by its roundish serrated glossy leaves in groups of three somewhat similar in shape to strawberry leaves. It is low to the ground and grows in damp or mossy places. Last year’s leaves are still completely green and this year’s new growth has not yet sprouted. If you scratch away the pine needles and leaf litter around the leaf stalk you will see the thin golden thread-like rhizome. Once you have located it, you can keep an eye on it for the white flowers about half an inch across which will appear late in April or early in May.

Medicinal use: It is hard to find a native plant which didn’t play a role in folk medicine. Goldthread is one that was officially recognized and from 1820 to 1882 it was listed in the U.S. Pharmacopeia, the official authority which still today sets the standards for quality, purity, strength, and consistency of prescription and over–the–counter medicines and other healthcare products.

Photo by Kay Fairweather

Goldthread contains two alkaloids, berberine and coptine. Berberine is also found in related plants in the buttercup and barberry families. Goldenseal (Hydrastis candensis) is a native plant closely related to Goldthread and it also contains berberine among other alkaloids and has been over-harvested in attempts to capitalize on a host of unfounded cure-all properties. European Barberry has become the preferred source of berberine.

The main traditional use of Goldthread was for mouth cankers and thrush infections – hence the other common names of Mouth Root and Canker Root. When you find Goldthread in our woods, I suggest you follow the guideline for poison ivy – “Leaves of three, let it be”.

Sources: Growing and Propagating Wildflowers of the US and Canada by William Cullina (available in the Gleason Library; Pharmacognosy by Edward P. Claus; Planting the Future by Rosemary Gladstar and Pamela Hirsch.∆

© 2010 The Carlisle Mosquito