Coptis trifolia

Threeleaf Goldthread

Threeleaf Goldthread, Photo © by Earl J.S. Rook
Threeleaf Goldthread
Photo © by Earl J.S. Rook

Flora, fauna, earth, and sky...
The natural history of the northwoods


  • Coptis, from the Greek kopto (kopto), "to cut", referring to dissected leaves
  • trifolia, from the Latin tri "three", and foliatus, "having leaves", hence "having three leaves".
  • Common Name, from fine, threadlike, golden yellow rhizomes that creep just beneath the surface of the ground.
  • Other common names include Alaska Goldthread, Canker Root, Common Goldthread, Trifoliate Goldthread, Coptis, Coptide, Goldenroot, Mouthroot, Vegetable Gold,
  • Yellow Snakeroot, savoyana, coptide trifoliolée


  • Kingdom Plantae, the Plants
    • Division Magnoliophyta, the Angiosperms (flowering plants)
      • Class Magnoliopsida, the Dicotyledons
      • Subclass Magnoliidae
        • Order Ranunculales, the Buttercups
          • Family Ranunculaceae, the Buttercups, with Actaea (Baneberries), Anemone, Clematis, Delphinium (Larkspurs), Hepatica, Ranunculus (Buttercups), and Thalictrum (Meadow Rues).
            • Genus Coptis, the Goldthreads
  • Taxonomic Serial Number: 18767
  • Also known as Anemone groenlandica, Chrusa borealis, Coptis groenlandica, Helleborus pumilus, Helleborus trifolius, Helleborus trilobus


  • A small, perennial, evergreen herb, 4" - 6" tall
  • Leaves dark, evergreen; divided like those of wild strawberries
  • Stems many; wiry, branched, and frequently matted.
  • Rhizome long, slender creeping; bright golden yellow.
  • Flowers ½" wide, white, in early summer
  • Forms endomycorrhizal associations.



  • Alaska to Labrador, south to Maryland and in the Appalachians to North Carolina and Tennessee, and west to Indiana and Iowa.


  • Common in coniferous forests, swamps, bogs, and road banks. Occurs in thickets, mossy places, cedar swamps, and in damp woods.
  • Low light, cool, moist conditions on relatively infertile soils, which are poorly drained, acidic, with a deep, often not well decomposed, organic layer.
  • Not tolerant of disturbance and disappears after logging, although it is not clear whether due to loss of canopy or mechanical damage to the roots. Intolerant of closed canopies but does require some shade, possibly because of its preference for moist sites.
  • Commonly associated with cool, moist habitats on poor to moderately well drained soils at low to middle elevations, often in or near peatlands.
  • Occurs in a number of plant associations but more often associated with coniferous canopies than with hardwoods.
  • Usually associated with sites under or near Black Spruce (Picea mariana).
  • Considered indicative of minerotrophic water (water that carries mineral nutrients into the peat) in peatlands.


  • Not well adapted to fire, despite its rhizomatous habit; shallow rooted.
  • Will survive cool fires, sprouting from the rhizome if top-killed, but the rhizome is sufficiently near the surface to be killed by moderate-severity fires.
  • Removal of the overstory appears to have a negative effect on survival.



  • Native Americans chewed roots to treat mouth sores. They also made tea from the roots to treat mouth sores. The tea was also used as an eyewash, to treat indigestion, and as a tonic after prolonged illness.


  • In New England it is valued as a local application in thrush, for children.


  • Sexually by seed
  • From rhizomes; tends to form colonies.


  • Can be propagated easily by dividing plant clumps in the spring.
  • Seeds, if obtainable (difficult), should be sown as soon as ripe and kept moist until germination. Flowers usually appear the following year.


  • Hardy to USDA Zone 3 (average minimum annual temperature -40ºF)
  • Prefers cool, moist acidic soils (pH of 4.0 to 5.0) and boglike conditions rich in humus.
  • Grows in sun in far northern areas but does better in shade; will quickly cover ground if given a winter blanket of decayed leaves.
  • Does not easily tolerate summer temperatures above 80°.
  • Set nursery plants in the ground in the spring or fall, 6" - 12" apart.
  • Mulch in winter with oak leaves, which should be partially removed in spring.
  • Occasionally available by mail order from specialty suppliers



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Last Updated on 25 September, 2002