Fig. 85. Coptis trifolia. Preparation: Fluid Extract of Coptis

The rhizome and rootlets of Coptis trifolia, Salisbury (Helleborus trifolius, Linné).
COMMON NAMES: Gold-thread, Mouth-root, Canker-root.
ILLUSTRATIONS: Lloyd's Drugs and Med. of N. A., Vol. I, Pl. 13; Bentley and Trimen, Med. Plants, 3.

Botanical Source.—This plant has a small and creeping, slender, thread-like, perennial rhizome of a bright-yellow color. Its leaves are ternate, on long, slender petioles, evergreen, and radical in tufts and invested at the base with a number of ovate, acuminate, yellowish scales. The leaflets are roundish, acute at base, lobed, and crenate, smooth, firm, veiny, sessile, and 4 to 8 lines long; the crenatures acuminate. The scape is slender, round, bearing I small, starry, white flower, and a minute, ovate, acute bract at some distance below. Petals 5, 6, or 7, inversely conical, hollow, and yellow at the mouth. Sepals 5, 6, or 7, oblong, concave, and white. Stamens numerous, white, with capillary filaments, and adnate, roundish anthers. Ovaries from 5 to 7, stipitate, oblong, and compressed. The styles are short and recurved; the stigmas acute. The capsules are stalked, oblong, prostrate, and compressed, diverging stellately, and containing many small, black, oval seeds (L.—W.).

History.—Gold-thread is found growing in the northern parts of the United States, following the Appalachian range as far south as northern Alabama, and in Canada, Greenland, Iceland, and Siberia. It grows in dark swamps and sphagnous woods, flowering from early in the spring to July. "Northern cedar and spruce and balsam swamps always abound with it. Another favorite habitat of the plant is the cold swamps, such as are found in mountain plateaus. It often grows freely in beds of sphagnum and other mosses, especially in wooded swamps. Although coptis is a swamp plant, it is not a mud plant, but generally selects the dry knolls surrounded by wet soil" (C. G. Lloyd, Drugs and Med. of N. A., Vol. I, p. 195). At one time it was so popular as a domestic remedy that more of it was sold in Boston than almost any other indigenous drug (Bigelow). It is now but little employed. Autumn is the season for collecting coptis, when it should be dried with care. Its properties are imparted to water, but more perfectly to alcohol, and the solutions are precipitated by nitrate of silver and acetate of lead.

Description.—Coptis "appears in market as masses of the entire plant, in which the bright-yellow, thread-like rhizome preponderates, and this yellow color is often perceptible part way up the leaf-stalk. The rhizome is pure bitter to the taste (berberine), and the portion of the leaf-stalk that possesses a yellow color is also perceptibly bitter. The other portions of the plant are insipid" (J. U. Lloyd, in Drugs and Med. of N. A., Vol. I. p. 198). It is also odorless.

Chemical Composition.—Coptis does not appear to contain resin, gum, gallic acid, or tannin, its virtues depending, probably, on its two alkaloids. In 1862, Prof. John M. Maisch (Buchner's Neues Repert. of Pharm., Vol. XI) announced berberine as its bitter principle, which was later confirmed by Prof. F. F. Mayer (1863), E. Z. Gross (1873), and J. J. Schultz (1884). Prof. Mayer also announced that the berberine was associated with another alkaloid, which was afterward obtained by both Gross and Schultz, the former naming it coptine. C. W. Burr (1884) found starch in the rhizome, though Gross had previously failed to do so. Sugar, albumen, and silica are also present in coptis. Coptine is a white, crystalline alkaloid, existing in the plant in small quantities (see Drugs and Med. of N. A.).

Action, Medical Uses, and Dosage.—Gold-thread is a pure and powerful bitter tonic, somewhat like quassia, gentian, and calumba, without any astringency. It may be beneficially used in all cases where a bitter tonic is required, and is decidedly efficient as a wash or gargle, when in decoction, in various ulcerations of the mouth. In the nursing sore mouth of mothers we have repeatedly and promptly cured with the decoction when infusion of hydrastis had no effect. This would seem to indicate that its virtues are not wholly dependent upon berberine as is generally supposed. In dyspepsia, and in chronic inflammations of the stomach, equal parts of gold-thread and golden-seal, made into a decoction, with elixir vitriol added in proper quantity, will not only prove effectual, but in many instances of the latter kind, will permanently destroy the appetite for alcoholic beverages. Dose of the powder, or tincture, from ½ drachm to 1 drachm; of the decoction, from 2 to 6 fluid drachms; the tincture, made by adding an ounce of the powdered root to a pint of diluted alcohol, is preferable to the powder.

Related Species.Coptis occidentalis, Torrey and Gray. This and the following plant are the more common species of Coptis found in the Rocky Mountain region and in the northwestern states, this species being found in Washington, Idaho, Oregon, and western Montana (D. & M. of N. A., Vol. I, 195-197).

Coptis asplenifolia, Salisbury.—High altitudes of northern half of Montana, Idaho, and Washington, and common in West British America. This and the above species contain berberine, and probably possess medicinal virtues similar to those of Coptis trifolia (D. & M. of N. A., Vol. I, 195-197).

Coptis Teeta, Wallich, Tita.—This drug (known in the Indian bazars as Mishmee bitter, is exported from China into India, where it is used as a bitter tonic, and locally in conjunctival diseases. The root is also used in India in visceral obstructions, flatulence, jaundice, and toothache (Dymock, Mat. Med. Western India).

Coptis anemonaefolia, Siebold.—Japan. Used like coptis and contains berberine.

King's American Dispensatory, 1898, was written by Harvey Wickes Felter, M.D., and John Uri Lloyd, Phr. M., Ph. D.