Author: Miguel J. Fernandez
University of Georgia
Photo courtesy of Dr. John Pickering
Table of Contents:
Scientific and Common Names:
Indian Physic; Bowman's Root; Fawn's Breath
Description of Species:
Porteranthus trifoliata is a perennial herb that reaches a height between 2'-3' (.6-1m).
Its flower is approximately 2.5cm in diameter eventually rising to a white or also
reddish star shape with small stipules. The flowers grow into loosely
packed clusters. In addition, the flowers are regular with 5 thin, slightly twisted
white petals. This species contains principal leaves that are compound and
irregularly toothed; alternate and arranged into three stalkless leaflets. The
calyx is tubular-bell-shaped; 5 petals are inserted in the throat of the calyx
in somewhat of an unequal fashion. Fruits are small follicles: 2 to 4 of 5 are
seeded. Bowman's Root also contains 10-20 stamens and 5 pistils. Other characteristics
include an irregular brownish root usually giving rise to several red stems. The
twisted petals along with long and slender flower stalks give this plant an untidy,
Spiraea trifoliata Linnaeus
Gillenia trifoliata Moench
Porteranthus trifoliatus Britton
Overview of Geographical Distribution:
Porteranthus trifoliata (formerly known botanically as Gillenia trifoliata)
is a perennial herb common in the eastern United States. This species favors a habitat rich in
mesophytic forests where they are frequently spotted on slopes. Furthermore, they are commonly
found in the upper piedmont area and stretching accross the Allegheny-Appalachian system.
Nevertheless, it has also been documented in open spaces of Ontario, Michigan, New York,
and south to Georgia and Missouri.It is interesting to point out that while
most species belonging to the family Rosaceae are found worldwide; P. trifoliata is
endemic to Eastern North America.
|AREA ||STATUS ||REFERENCES
Continental United States; Canada
|Yes||Duke & Fost, 1990
|Eastern North America:|
United States east of Mississippi;
Ontario and eastern Canada
|Yes||Duke & Fost,1990|
|Southeastern United States:|
AL AR DE DC FL GA KY MD
NC SC TN VA WV
|Yes||Duke & Fost, 1990
|Southern Appalachian States:|
AL GA KY MD NC SC TN VA
|Coastal Plain||Yes,but no native colonies||Duncan & Duncan, 1993>
Duncan & Duncan, 1993
|Blue Ridge Mountains||Yes||Duncan & Duncan, 1993
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park
|Ridge and Valley||Yes||
Duncan & Duncan, 1993
|Georgia||Yes||Jones & Coile, 1988
|Clarke County, Georgia||Yes||UGA Herbarium Specimens
The dried root of Porteranthus trifoliata is reddish brown:
the bark is easily removed. In fact, it is the root-bark combination that has
medicinal value: tonic, emetic, diaphoretic, cathartic, expectorant. Bowman's root
was used by the American Indians as well as by early colonists. The drug obtained
is recommended in dyspepsia, dropsy, rheumatism and chronic costiveness. It is
quite safe and reliable. Bowman's root is a wildflower with small changes in
populations over time. Harvey Ballard refers to this topic in the Michigan Botanist (1985):
"I have visited the site each year, and wile I have noted gradual changes in the
diversity and composition of the abutting plant communities and the ecotone where
the species occurs, I have found the location and number of plants to remain
For those of you who are interested in growing P. trifoliata you
should find it comforting to know that they are relatively easy to grow; nevertheless,
a northeastern or a Southeastern Coniferous Woodland habitat or a Deciduous
Woodland environment is nice to have. For awe-inspiring results, an acidic,
humus-rich, soil with a pH of 5.0 to 6.0 is favorable. Moderate moisture is also
quite important. Since Bownam's root looks best planted in a colony, guidelines have
been set regarding spacing: 12 to 24 inches apart. Spring is the best time of the
year for cultivation. P. trifoliata has a typical life cycle of most dicots.Image of life cycle
Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas is a scientific
reference that includes this species within an identification key:
Stipules 6-8mm long, the principal lobe about 1mm wide.............1. G.trifoliata
Stipules 10-20mm long, the principal lobe 10-20mm wide.............2. G.stipulata
Paratype specimens of this species are found in herbariums of those states where P. trifoliata
is prominent, particularly at State Universities such as Michigan State and the University of North Carolina.
Want to Find It!!!
Your best chance at spotting these conspicuous herbs is to visit the rich woods of
Georgia and the Carolinas during the months of April to June. (Ascends to 4500 ft. in
North Carolina) They can also be found along roadways of the Great Smoky Mountains.
Click here for an image of P.trifoliata courtesy of Dr. Rodger C. Evans
from the University of Toronto.Copyright 1994
Ballard, Harvey.The Michigan Botanist.Vol.24. Ann Arbor,Mich: The
Michigan Botanical Club. 1985.
Duncan,W.H.& M.B. Duncan.Trees of the Southeastern United States.
Athens: The University of Georgia Press,Ga.1993
Duncan,William.Wildflowers of the Southeastern United States. Athens:
The University of Georgia Press, 1975.
Duke and Fost.A field Guide to Medicinal Plants. Boston: Houghton Mifflin
"Gillenia (Rosaceae)"Encyclopedia of Herbs & Their Uses.1995.
Hutson, Robert.Great Smoky Mountains Wildflowers Northbrook: Windy
Pines Publishing, 1995.
Radford, A.E., H.E. Ahles & C.R. Bell. Manual of the Vascular Flora of the
Carolinas. Chapel Hill: University of Carolina Press, 1993.
Roberts, June.Season of Promise. Athens:Ohio University Press.1993.
Taylor, Norman.A Guide to the Wild Flowers. New York: Garden City