I was searching for a garden candidate beginning with the letter X recently, (yes, I know that's not usually how a garden is planned, but that's another article) when I came across Xanthorhiza simplicissima, yellow root. Yellow root is a small woody plant native to a large part of eastern North America, but it is rare in cultivation and hard to find in gardening books. The Arnold Arboretum in Boston and the JC Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh include this plant in their landscapes. Yellow root's native status, early spring bloom and fall color made me want to create a complete "X file" on the plant.
Yellow root grows in sun or shade in zones 3 to 9. Its natural range covers a wide swath from Maine to Louisiana. In the wild, yellow root prefers moist locations and stream sides. It is a woody deciduous plant forming a thicket of suckering stems starting about a foot tall and increasing in height each year, to three feet. William Cullina, in Native Trees, Shrubs, and VInes, says yellow root can be kept under three feet tall by pruning after a decade or so. Unique starry purple flowers emerge from these stems in early spring before leaves come out. The foliage is a bright glossy green, lacy and divided. When autumn arrives, the yellow root is at its showiest. The leaves turn yellow, then bright rosy red, fading to tan and persisting into winter. The plant is easy to propagate from cuttings and divisions, according to Cullina. The small seeds are eaten by a variety of wildlife. Yellow root was used medicinally by native Americans. They used it as a treatment for hemorrhoids and an eye wash for sore eyes. They also chewed the root as a treatment for sore throats and toothache. They also used the tea as a treatment for stomach ulcers and jaundice. Yellow root is astringent, antibacterial and antifungal and that explains why it was so useful to the Native American herbal pharmacy. It is also known as scurvy root and the bitterness of the tea is a good indication as to its effectiveness, plus the fact that it was also a vermifuge (rids the body of intestinal worms and parasites...EWWWW!) Many modern wild crafters attest to the legitimacy of the plant and speak highly of it. The root also produces a lovely yellow dye and the young, flexible stems were used as basket making material. It was a plant with many uses and highly regarded. While it is uncommon to see it sold commercially, it is a still in common use throughout the Appalachians.
Let's just call it yellowroot.
Xanthorhiza simplicissima is quite a mouthful. When you break down those Latin words, the name isn't as intimidating. Xanth means yellow, a reference to a pigment that makes the wood and the roots (rhiza) yellow. Simplicissima refers to the simple, unbranched (uncomplicated) stems. Yellow root makes for a great Latin mini-tutorial. Interestingly, this is the only species in this genus, and the only woody species in the Ranunculus (buttercup) family.
I don't know that I've ever seen yellow root in a natural setting. It should be growing somewhere within my stomping grounds of central Maryland woodlands. The maps at USDA PLANTS for this species show it as found somewhere in MD but no county data is given. Possibly yellow root is not as happy in my coastal plain soil as it is in more landlocked forests. I could really find it much more easily if I could see it "in person," but where?
The US National Arboretum is my biggest, best and closest place for unique plant observation. Happily, yellow root appears in Annotated List of Plants Growing Naturally at The National Arboretum created by Oliver M. Freeman in 1953. More digital digging turned up a helpful tool on the U. S. National Arboretum website. The Arboretum Botanical Explorer search and mapping tool showed me that I can find yellow root in their Fern Valley native plant collection. Unfortunately, as I write this, the ground is snow covered and the windchill in the negative range, so I won't be visiting the Arboretum before this is published. There isn't much to see until early spring when the flowers open. You can be sure I'll plan a visit in early May when I should be able to see some flowers and early leaves.
And yellow root IS available at nurseries. Just don't look for it in the run-of-the-mill mail order catalogs and big box garden centers. Find this plant at specialty growers like these:
American Beauties Native Plants (see their tool for finding local vendors)
Credit and resources
Images in the article courtesy of PlantFiles
See more images:
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center site, wildflower.org, http://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=XASI
North Carolina Native Plant Society site, ncwildflower.org, http://www.ncwildflower.org/plant_galleries/details/xanthorhiza-simplicissima/