Gillenia trifoliata, Bowman’s Root – My Vote For Garden MVP

This Summer has been absolutely fantastic here in Maine. There has been plenty of sunshine and enough warmth to make everything grow and prosper. The plants have leaped from the slow, cool spring to take in all that summer seemingly has to offer. Just like the throngs of tourists that visit Maine.

The cold winter and aforementioned spring have led to what I am calling the Monty Python effect. Remember that scene from “The Holy Grail” when a couple of men are removing the dead from a Middle Ages village? They pick up the one guy and attempt to place him in the cart when he responds: “I’m not dead yet!”

Gillenia trifoliata
Gillenia trifoliata blooms on red stems by Scott Zona

For a couple of months, I felt like there was an entire cluster of these plants that were not exactly dead yet. They had succumbed to the plague of frost and sub-zero temperatures. It seemed that daily, I was scratching the bark with my fingernail or gently cutting a small branch with my Felco #2’s to see if there was any evidence of green. It’s now mid-July, and we have mostly removed all of the dead and pruned back all of the near-dead branches.

Growing Gillenia Trifoliata in the Northern Garden

The flip side to the Monty Python effect is the plants that have prospered from the cold and now mild summer. Besides the weeds, I am blown away by the colors and the growth rate of many of our hardy, perennial plants. I am going to go out on a limb and say the MVP (most valuable plant) this year has been Gillenia trifoliata. (Which also goes by porteranthus trifoliatus)

This fantastic, native plant and perennial leapt from the ground in mid-spring and has been flowering for well over a month. The airy, 5-petaled, white, star-shaped flowers are soft and borne en masse above the leaves for a dramatic effect.  

pink profusion gillenia trifoliata
Gillenia Trifoliata ‘pink profusion’ by katrinlugerbauer

The flowering stalks will top out at 3-4 ft in height. This is a formidable perennial that is beautiful in mass plantings. The leaves are trifoliate and vary between deep green and light green depending on exposure, soil moisture, and nutrition. Most references list this as a plant for partial shade, but we can get away with more sun here along the Maine coast. The red stems provide a nice contrast – they are a deep, unobtrusive red that gives the whole plant a pink tinge. 

A Deer Resistant Native Plant

As the temperatures start to decline and the season changes to fall, Gillenia trifoliata leaves turn a brilliant red color. The common names for this MVP are Bowman’s root, Indian physic, and Fawn’s breath. These common names crack me up as the first two are masculine and mysterious, while the fawn’s breath has me visualizing Bambi hiding down inside of it on a frosty morn just before it wakes up and eats the entire plant down to the ground. That was just a joke. I have no idea if deer like Gillenia trifoliata. Given that it is in the rose family and somewhat related to Spiraea, deer may eat it if given the chance. I would appreciate any feedback if deer do like Bowman’s root. 

(Note added later – Deer apparently don’t like this plant) 

In addition to being a wonderful plant in the garden, the flowers work well and hold up as cuts for arrangements. Also, after the flowers fade, the red calyces persist on the stems, adding to their seasonal interest. That country, which gave the world Monty Python, has also given Gillenia trifoliata the Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society. This is one of the highest awards that a plant can receive from the RHS.

Now, I beg your pardon, when are you adding Gillenia trifoliata to your garden?


gillenia trifoliata
image by Staudengärtnerei Forssman

Interesting Lore and Design tips for Gillenia Trifoliata 

1. A Gillenia trifoliata was traditionally used by Native American tribes, including the Cherokee and Iroquois, for its medicinal properties. It was known as “Indian Physic” due to its use as a laxative and remedy for digestive issues.

2. This plant is named after Dr. John Bowman, an 18th-century Virginian physician and botanist who was an avid collector of North American plants. His contributions to the field of botany are commemorated by the plant’s common name, Bowman’s root.

3. The plant produces lovely star-shaped flowers that come in various shades of pretty pink and white. The color can vary between individual plants, adding to its allure. Look for Gillenia trifoliata ‘Pink Profusion’  to get the pretty pink flowers. 

4. This perennial is a shade-loving champion. It thrives in woodland gardens or shady spots, making it a valuable asset for landscape designers looking to add interest to low-light areas.  I’m planning to plant it in an area similar to its native habitat – on the rocky banks at the back of the house in a shaded woodland area of the garden. 

gillenia trifoliata, allium and Chasmanthium latifolium
Gillenia trifoliata in the background with Chasmanthium latifolium in the foreground by Tony Spencer

5. The roots of Gillenia trifoliata contain tannins, which are astringent compounds. Tannins have been used historically to treat skin conditions and stop bleeding. It’s intriguing how plants can provide such diverse benefits!

6. This plant is a pollinator magnet. Bees, butterflies, and other insects are attracted to its flowers, making it a valuable addition to gardens that aim to support local ecosystems.

7. Gillenia trifoliata is appreciated for its graceful appearance and versatility in garden design. It’s often used to create borders, as an accent plant, or in wildflower gardens, adding a touch of sophistication to landscapes.

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  1. Lauren Vickerman says:

    I have this plant and LOVE it too! I can’t recall where I got it, but I moved a clump with me from eastern Long Island to Southern CT and it keeps getting bigger and better every year. I’ve divided it and tucked pieces around the property and report it performs everywhere but deep shade. It has a substantial fibrous root system, and I really worked hard to divide it as I recall.
    I wish it got more props from designers and retailers but then again, I like having something unexpected in my garden. Yes, up to my windows behind the Butter and Sugar Siberian irises, Lady in Red hydrangeas and hakonechloa and hust spectacular when blooming.

  2. Shannon says:

    My vote goes to Structured Water, it makes anything grow… all I have to do is remember to water it with Structured Water and watch it grow like crazy. Kickstarter has a promotion on right now where the units are 75% cheaper than anyone else on the internet.

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