Author: Miguel J. Fernandez
Biology Major
University of Georgia
June 7,1999
Porteranthus trifoliata (L.)Britton

Photo courtesy of Dr. John Pickering

Table of Contents:

Scientific and Common Names:

Taxonomic Classification:

Class Dicotyledons
Subclass Rosidae
Order Rosales
Family Rosaceae
Subfamily Spiraeoideae
Genus Porteranthus
Species trifoliata

Common Names:
Indian Physic; Bowman's Root; Fawn's Breath

Identification Guide:

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, delicate appearance.

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.

Porteranthus trifoliataL.

North America:
Continental United States; Canada
YesDuke & Fost, 1990
Eastern North America:
United States east of Mississippi;
Ontario and eastern Canada
YesDuke & Fost,1990
Southeastern United States:
YesDuke & Fost, 1990
Southern Appalachian States:
YesBallard, 1985
Coastal PlainYes,but no native coloniesDuncan & Duncan, 1993>
PiedmontWidespread Duncan & Duncan, 1993
Blue Ridge MountainsYesDuncan & Duncan, 1993
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
YesHutson, 1995
Ridge and ValleyYes Duncan & Duncan, 1993
GeorgiaYesJones & Coile, 1988
Clarke County, GeorgiaYesUGA Herbarium Specimens

Natural History

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 essentially unchanged."

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. General Information

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 Company, 1990.

  • "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 Publishing Company,1971.