Gillenia trifoliata. Common gillenia.

Botanical name: 

Pl. 41. Gillenia trifoliata. Notwithstanding the principle avowed by Linnaeus, that genera are formed by nature; the determination of generic consanguinity in species occasions in many instances one of the greatest perplexities of the botanist. What difference in structure and external form either of flower or fruit, is sufficient to separate families of plants from each other; is a point often difficult to decide; and is perhaps as frequently set at rest by convenience and by arbitrary decision, as it is by any unexceptionable boundaries designated in nature. When the species of a vegetable order are exceedingly numerous, and a close similarity pervades the whole; genera are multiplied by botanists, that the discrimination of species may be facilitated. On the other hand, where a group of species is not unwieldy from its size, or deficient in distinctive marks, the genera are made as comprehensive, as natural affinity will permit. The diversity of structure, which exists in the flowers of Gentiana, or the fruit of Bunias, would be deemed ample foundation for constructing half a dozen genera among the umbelliferous, leguminous, or gramineous orders. But as the species of the genera above have a strong agreement in one part of their fructification, as well as in general habit, and as no great obscurity or inconvenience results from keeping them together, it has not been thought worth while to multiply nomenclature by arranging them under separate titles.

The separation of Gillenia from Spiraea is one of those cases, upon which the botanist may hesitate long, without finding reasons strong enough to influence his decision. The natural order to which they belong is remarkable for having its genera well defined, so that there is no necessity for the separation, arising from confusion or indistinctness. The fruit of Gillenia is exactly the fruit of Spiraea, and the habit of the herb in one is not very foreign from that of the other. There is nevertheless something in the irregular corolla, taken in conjunction with the campanulate calyx, which I think would prevent any one, at first sight, from considering the plant a Spiraea; and which may afford sufficient ground for following the example of Moench in considering it a distinct genus.

The Gillenia trifoliata grows in woods, in a light soil, from Canada to Florida. In the maritime states I have not met with it north of the Hudson. Its flowering time is in June and July.

The generic character, which distinguishes this plant from Spiraea, is as follows: Calyx campanulate, five toothed; corolla irregular, petals lanceolate, contracted near the claws; capsules five, The species trifoliata has ternate, lanceolate, serrate leaves, and stipules which are minute, linea-lanceolate and nearly entire.

Class Icosandria, order Pentagynia. Natural orders Senticosae, Lin. Rosaceae, Juss.

This plant has commonly a number of stems from the same root, which are a foot or two in height, erect, slender, flexuous, smooth, commonly of a reddish tinge, and considerably branched. The leaves are alternate, trifoliate, with very short petioles, furnished with small lanceolate, slightly toothed stipules at the base. Leafets ovate, lanceolate, acuminate, sharply toothed, the upper ones often single. The flowers are few in number, scattered, terminal, nodding, forming a sort of panicle, with long peduncles, occasionally furnished with minute lanceolate bractes. Calyx subcampanulate, or tubular, with the lower half narrowest, the border divided into five reflexed acute teeth. Petals five, the two upper ones separated from the three lower, white, with a reddish tinge on the edge of the outside, lanceolate, unguiculate, contracted, and approximated at base. Stamens about twenty in a double series within, the calyx. Germ round, styles approximated. Capsules five, not one, as some authors have stated, diverging, oblong, acuminate, gibbous without, sharp edged within, two valved, one celled, one or two seeded; seeds oblong, corresponding in shape to the capsule.

The root of this plant is much branched and knotty. It consists of a woody portion, invested with a thick bark, which when dry is brittle, and very bitter to the taste. The predominant, soluble ingredients in this root appear to be a bitter extractive matter, and resin. When boiled in water, it imparts to it a beautiful, deep red, wine colour, and an intensely bitter taste. This decoction undergoes no change from alcohol or gelatine, though it gives a precipitate with muriate of tin. Water distilled from the root has its peculiar flavour, with little of the bitterness. A large portion of resin is precipitated on the addition of water to an alcoholic tincture of the root.

Under the name of Spiraea trifoliata, this plant is well known to students of the American Materia Medica, as an emetic. To the remarks which have been made by various writers, I can add my own testimony of its possessing properties in a certain degree analogous to those of ipecacuanha. It requires, however, a larger dose, and I have»not been satisfied that it is at all certain in its operation. At times I have known fifteen grains to produce a full operation; at others thirty grains have been given to a person already predisposed to vomit, without producing the least sensible effect.

The best printed account which I have found respecting its mode of operation is contained in an Inaugural Dissertation, published at Philadelphia in 1810, by Dr. De la Motta, then of Charleston, S. C. This gentleman, in addition to other trials, took the root himself twice in sufficient quantity to produce vomiting. "In order," he says, "to ascertain this particular power of the Spiraea, I, early in the morning, fasting, prescribed for myself twenty-five grains of the powdered root of this plant. I divided this quantity into four equal parts, one of which I took every fifteen minutes, conceiving this a sufficient length of time to allow for the action of each dose in my stomach. The first dose taken produced no manifest effect. At the expiration of fifteen minutes I took a second dose;—a degree of uneasiness was experienced, attended with some nausea;—at the end of fifteen minutes more I swallowed a third dose,—nausea increased, until the convulsive action of my stomach took place. The fourth dose was now taken; considerable efforts were made to vomit, and finally the contents of my stomach were thrown up, together with a profuse quantity of bile. The determination of blood to my head, the frequency of my pulse, and heat of my system were much augmented. I now drank half a pint of warm water; the action of my stomach subsided, and the nausea gradually wore off. A portion of the medicine, I was induced to believe, had insinuated itself into the intestines, as two copious evacuations were produced within the space of three hours. During the day I felt much debilitated, but imputed this to the general effect of emetics.

"I was thus satisfied with respect to its efficacy as an emetic upon an empty stomach. But, being still desirous of becoming better acquainted with its particular operation after eating an usual meal, I made a second experiment, one month after the first. In the morning, one hour after I had eaten a hearty breakfast, I took twenty grains of the medicine, in divided doses, as in the former experiment. At the expiration of a very few minutes nausea commenced, which continuing to increase, with very few efforts I discharged the contents of my stomach. The effects of the second trial answered exactly my expectations."

Some authors have attributed a tonic power to the Gillenia, when administered in small doses. That it possesses such a power is rendered probable by its bitter taste, and by the fact, that small doses of ipecacuanha exert a beneficial stimulus on the stomach in certain cases of debility in that organ.

Botanical References.

Gillenia trifoliata, Moench, Meth. suppl. p. 286.
Nuttall, Genera, i. 307
Spiraea trifoliata, Lin.
Willd. Sp. pl. ii. 1063.
Curtis, Bot. Mag. t. 489.
Miller, Icones, 256.
Michaux, Flor. i. 294.
Pursh, i. 248.

Medical References.

Schoepf, 80.
B. S. Barton, Coll. 26.
De la Motta, Inaugural Dissertation.

American Medical Botany, 1817-1821, was written by Jacob Bigelow, M. D.