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What is Gillenia?

Greer Hed
Greer Hed

Gillenia is a small genus of the plant family Rosaceae, a family that includes most species of rose. The genus includes only two unique species and is native to woodlands of the eastern United States. These species are both perennial flowering herbs with woody branches, and both may be referred to by a number of common names, including Bowman's root, Indian physic, and American ipecac. Plants of the genus Gillenia may be planted either as ornamental flowering plants in a garden or grown as medicinal herbs.

The genus contains only two species, Gillenia trifoliata and Gillenia stipulata. These two species are extremely similar to one another in appearance. One of the few ways to distinguish between one species and the other is to look at the stipules, which are stem-like protuberances that grow at the base of the plant's leaves. G. trifoliata's stipules are longer and are eventually shed by the plant, while G. stipulata's stipules are round in shape and never fall off the plant.

Man mowing the grass
Man mowing the grass

Plants of the genus Gillenia have full, low-growing, bushy leaves. These leaves are deciduous, meaning that they change colors as the weather gets colder and eventually drop off the plant. The flowers are white, with five petals that make them somewhat resemble the typical star shape.

Gillenia species can either reproduce from seed or be propagated by division. Division is a type of asexual reproduction that involves breaking off parts of the original plant, such as its roots or crown, and then using these parts to grow new, separate plants. The plants are typically not difficult to maintain, although they do prefer to grow in acidic soil and in lots of shade.

The roots of these plants have a medicinal use as an emetic, or a substance used to make someone vomit. The bark of the roots contains an active component called gillenin that irritates the lining of the stomach when it is ingested. This irritation can lead to nausea and retching, and at higher doses can cause patients to vomit.

Traditionally, the emetic properties of the root bark led to its being prescribed in cases of poisoning. In fact, some compounds in the roots are themselves poisonous, but because someone who has ingested the root bark is unable to keep anything in their stomach for very long, these poisonous compounds are seldom life-threatening. In traditional herbal medicine, the powdered root bark was also used as a treatment for indigestion, rheumatism, and the condition known as dropsy, or the abnormal accumulation of subdermal fluids. However, modern medicine disputes the efficacy of these treatments.

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