THE dark sphagnous swamps, which in the northern parts of our continent are covered with a perpetual shade of firs, cedars and pines, are the favourite haunts of this elegant little evergreen. The coldest situations seem to favour its growth, and it flourishes alike in the morasses of Canada and of Siberia. On our highest mountain tops it plants itself in little bogs and watery clefts of rocks, and perfects its fructification in the short summer allowed it in those situations. I have gathered it upon the summit of the Ascutney in Vermont, and on the Alpine regions of the White mountains. It is here that in company with the Diapensia and Azaleas of Lapland, the blue Menziesia, the fragrant Alpine Holcus, and other plants of high northern latitudes, it forms the link of botanical connexion between the two continents. When in situations like this, we seem transported to the frigid zone, and to be present at the point where the hemispheres approach each other, as if to interchange their productions. ["Non sine admiratione vidi non solum multas cum rarissimis nostris plantis Lapponicis communes, sed etiam alias, partim ignotas omnino, partim minime tritas; et denique quasdain etiam cum Canadensibus easdem, argumento Canadam a Camscatca non longe distaare, uti sequentes antea in sola America boreali visae, nunc etiam in extrema ora Siberiae." Amoenitates Academicae, ii. 310.]
In the second volume of the Amoenitates Academicae is a description and imperfect figure of this plant as brought from Kamschatka, by Halenius. He describes it by the name Helleborus trifolius, with the observation, "Minima est haec planta in suo genere, attamen spectabilis." Subsequent botanists have ranked it with the Hellebores, until Mr. Salisbury very properly separated it from a family of plants, with which it wholly disagrees in habit, and constituted a new genus by the name of Coptis. This genus is characterized by the following marks. Calyx none; petals five or six, caducous; nectaries five or six, cucullate; capsules from five to eight, pedicelled, leaked, many seeded. The species trifolia has ternate leaves, and a one flowered scape.
In botanical arrangements, the Coptis will follow the Hellebores, from which it was taken, remaining in the class and order Polyandria, Polygynia, with the Multisiliquae of Linnseus and the Ranunculaceae of Jussieu.
The roots of this plant, from which the name of goldthread is taken, are perennial and creeping. On removing the moss and decayed leaves from the surface of the ground, they discover themselves of a bright yellow colour, running in every direction. The bases of the new stems are invested with a number of yellowish, ovate, acuminate stipules. Leaves ternate, on long slender petioles; leafets roundish, acute at base, lobed and crenate, the crenatures acuminate; smooth, firm, veiny. Scape slender, round, bearing one small, starry white flower, and a minute, ovate, acute bracte at some distance below. Calyx none. Petals five, six or seven, oblong, concave, white. Nectaries five or six, inversely conical, hollow, yellow at the mouth. Stamens numerous, white, with capillary filaments and roundish anthers. Germs from five to seven, stipitate, oblong, compressed; styles recurved. Capsules pedicelled, umbelled, oblong, compressed, beaked, with numerous black oval seeds attached to the inner side.
The root of this plant is a pure intense bitter, scarcely modified by any other taste. In distillation it communicates no decided sensible quality to water. The constituent with which it most abounds is a bitter extractive matter, soluble both in water and alcohol. It seems destitute of resinous or gummy portions, since the residuum from an evaporated solution in alcohol is readily dissolved in water, and vice versa. It is devoid of astringency when chewed in the mouth, and it gives no indication of the presence of tannin or gallic acid when tested with animal gelatin, or with sulphate of iron. The abundance of the bitter principle is evinced by the acetate of lead and nitrate of silver, both of which throw down a copious precipitate. The sulphuric, nitric, and muriatic acids occasion no change, and the muriate of tin gives only a slight precipitate, after some time standing.
Of this article larger quantities are sold in the druggists' shops in Boston, than of almost any indigenous production. The demand for it arises from its supposed efficacy as a local application in aphthous, and other ulcerations of the mouth. Its reputation however in these cases is wholly unmerited, since it possesses no astringent or stimulating quality, by which it can act on the ulcerated spots, and where benefit has attended its use, it is doubtless to be ascribed to other articles possessing the above properties, with which it is usually combined.
As a pure tonic bitter, capable of strengthening the viscera and promoting digestion, it is entitled to rank with most articles of that kind now in use. Its character resembles that of Gentian, Quassia, and Columbo, being a simple bitter without aroma or astringency. The tincture, made by digesting half an ounce of the bruised root in eight ounces of diluted alcohol, forms a preparation of a fine yellow colour, possessing the whole bitterness of the plant. I have given it in various instances to dyspeptics and convalescents, who have generally expressed satisfaction from its effects, at least, as frequently as from other medicines of its class. A teaspoonful may be taken three times a day. In substance, it rests well on the stomach in doses of ten or twenty grains. It is however difficult to reduce to powder on account of the tenacity of its fibres.
Salisbury, Lin. Trans, viii. 305.
Pursh, ii. 390.
Helleborus trifolius, sp. pl.
Willd. ii. 1338.
Kalm, Travels, iii. 379.
Lepech. iter i. 190.
Pallas, Iter. iii. 34.
Oeder, F. Dan. t. 566.
Michaux, Fl. i. 325.
Amoen. Acad. ii. 356, t. 4. f. 18.
Helleborus trifolius, Bart. Coll.
Nigella. Cutler, Amer. Acad. i. 457.
Thacher, Disp. 283.
American Medical Botany, 1817-1821, was written by Jacob Bigelow, M. D.