Many gardeners and standard plant nurseries have yet to discover the multiple attributes of yellowroot. This low, attractive shrub is a hardy and reliable groundcover for shady or sunny areas, making it ideal for locations that transition from shade to sun during the day. Delicate strings of tiny, deep-purple to chocolate-brown flowers bloom in March before the foliage appears. The flowers gradually disappear beneath the leaves, giving way to clusters of star-shaped green follicles (fruits) that dry to yellow. Yellowroot’s erect, branchless stems lined with glossy leaves form a dense, uniform mat that doubles as a competitor for weeds and a valuable cover for over 50 species of birds and mammals. It’s one of the few plants that can accomplish this in fairly deep and dry shade, where it usually grows 2 to 3 feet tall with a more open and airy form. When sited in full sun, yellowroot is shorter and denser, and its fall colors tend to be more reddish purple than golden yellow. The long-lived plant is extremely adaptable with suckering roots that prevent erosion and tolerate periods of both flooding and drought. Yellowroot grows vigorously in moist soils and more slowly in dry, sandy, or compacted soils and full sun. Physical barriers such as sidewalks and metal edging help to contain its spread.
Yellowroot is one of the few woody members of the Ranunculaceae family (clematis is another) and is the only species in its genus. It’s often found growing along shaded streambanks and in moist woodlands throughout its native range of eastern North America. The yellow color of the roots inspired the common and genus names (Xantho is Greek for yellow and Rhiza is Greek for root), while the unbranched stems are described by the name simplicissima, which means “most simple” or “least divided.”
Native habitats include damp woods, stream banks, and wet depressions. Use as a groundcover to define paths or add texture to the landscape. Yellowroot is suitable for woodland, native and rain gardens; naturalized areas; slopes; and banks of streams and ponds. It pairs well with early-blooming bulbs.
Grows 1-3’ tall and 6-10’ wide.
Grows in full sun to full shade.
Prefers moist sand, gravel, silt, and well-drained clay loam. Tolerates occasional flooding and drought. Alkaline soils may cause chlorosis.
Star-shaped, ¼” flowers with 5 sepals bloom in panicles 2-8” long from March to May. The terminal panicles initially point upward, becoming more lax as they grow.
Alternate leaves are 4-10” long and have 3-5 toothed leaflets that turn yellow to reddish purple in fall.
Older stems have thin, smooth, brownish-gray bark.
The seeds provide food for game birds, song birds, and other small animals during the late fall and winter. The dense foliage is used by birds for ground nesting. Deer avoid browsing the plant.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
Native Americans and early settlers used the plant to treat hemorrhoids, sore eyes, and sore throats.
Berberine gives the root and stems their yellow coloring, and the chemical is promoted by some as providing health benefits. Yellowroot is currently used to treat a variety of conditions, including inflammation, infections, and high blood pressure.
Early settlers crushed the roots and stems to produce a yellow dye. The practice lost favor because the color faded to drab olive when exposed to sunlight.
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