Know Your Natives – American Ipecac

American ipecac (Gillenia stipulata; previously Porteranthus stipulatus), of the Rose (Rosaceae) family occurs in the U.S. from northeast Texas to southeast Kansas, to Michigan, New York and south to Georgia.  In Arkansas, this species is found mostly statewide except for portions of the Mississippi Alluvial Plain.  The genus name honors a German physician and botanist, Arnold Gillenius.  The specific epithet means “with stipules”.  The common name “American ipecac” relates to its roots having been used by Native Americans as an emetic and laxative.  Another common name is Indian physic.

This species, a clumping perennial, grows in moist to dry, partially shaded rocky woods and thickets of uplands.  In spring, robust leafy reddish stems emerge from shallow branched rhizomes.  Mature plants are erect and leafy with terete, straight, slender stems that reach 3+ feet tall.  Petioles and undersides of leaves are reddish in spring.  With rapid spring growth, upper leaves are a lighter green, but the plant overall becomes medium green in summer.  Fall leaves are yellowish-red.  In winter, erect leafless, reddish stems persist.

American ipecac - Gillenia stipulataPhoto 1:  Four major stems of American ipecac growing from a shallow rhizome.  Previous year’s stem indicated by arrow.

American ipecac - Gillenia stipulataPhoto 2:  In late winter, lower leaves unfold to show deeply lobed, serrated trifoliate leaves.

Leaves, trifoliate with short petioles, are uniformly spaced along the main stem, with leaf size gradually decreasing but remaining large toward the inflorescence.  Each higher leaf is positioned about 115 degrees clockwise above the leaf below.  Largest leaves are about 4 inches long and 2 inches wide.  Central leaflets are longer and broader than lateral leaflets.  Lateral leaflets are angled away from the central leaflet at about 45 degrees.  Leaflets have a soft, thin feel with firm raised midribs and principal veins on the underside.  Upper and lower surfaces of leaves and stipules are the same color.

Leaflets of lower stem leaves are deeply cut to form up to six offset pairs of lanceolate lobes lower on leaflets.  Higher up the stem, lobing decreases such that the uppermost trifoliate leaves are not further lobed.  Leaves along main stem remain fairly large toward top of plant.  Leaves on branches are sharply smaller than stem leaves.  Margins of all leaves have prominent double serrations.  Leaflets and lobes are slightly up-folded along midribs.  The base and apex of leaflets gradually taper to tips.  At the base of leaflets, blade tissue extends to the junction of the three leaflets.

All stem leaves (and some leaves on branches) have pairs of fan-shaped, leafy stipules.  These sessile stipules have a central vein positioned well off-center of the fan-shape to create a narrow and wide side, with the narrow side being toward leaf petiole.  Stipules are serrated in similar fashion as leaves, with the longest serration at the central vein.  Stipules are the same color and texture as leaves so that leaves may seem to have five lobes.  Stipules are positioned horizontally in consonance with the leaves.  Stipules persist with leaves.

American ipecac - Gillenia stipulataPhoto 3:  Trifoliate leaves higher up-stem have a less complicated shape.

American ipecac - Gillenia stipulataPhoto 4:  Display showing reddish base of a stem and three stem leaves.  Leaves from lower portion of stem positioned on right.  Leaf on left subtends a secondary branch that would have produced flowers.  Not pair of large, fan-shaped stipules at base of each leaf.

The inflorescence is found on the upper portion of the main stem where several to a dozen wiry, ascending branches grow from axils of stem leaves.  The longest of these branches (to about 10 inches) are lower on the stem and bear one or several well-spaced, small, stipulate serrated trifoliate leaves.  Farther up these lowest branches, leaves transition to simple serrated leaves (which may have stipules) to tiny simple leaves without stipules.  Branches higher up the stem are significantly shorter and the first leaf may subtend a flower.  Flowers over the entire plant are generally each subtended by a leaf, but at the farthest extent of branches, flowers may or may not be subtended by a minute leaf.   Individual branches bear from several to about 10 flowers, all on separate pedicels.

Flowers, before anthesis, have a reddish-green, tubular calyx with five triangular teeth from which pointed, white to light pink, tightly bound buds jut out.  The calyx is truncated at its base.  Inch-wide flowers have five widely spaced, flared petals that loosely surround about 20 stamens and five pistils.  Petals, broadly lanceolate with narrow base and acuminate tip, are rather flimsy.

American ipecac - Gillenia stipulataPhoto 5:  Elongated white buds unfurl to show five widely spaced, broadly lanceolate petals surrounding stamens and pistils.  Photo from mid-May.

Fertilized ovaries develop into woody, five-compartmented, pointed capsules with two seeds per compartment.  Seeds are rounded and slightly elongated with a flattened side.  Capsules and seeds are a reddish brown when dry.

American ipecac - Gillenia stipulataPhoto 6:  Display of pressed upper stem leaves with stipules (front and back), seed capsules and seeds.  Photo from end of August.

For a garden or natural area, American ipecac is a dependable plant suitable for well drained, rocky soils in a partially sunny site.  This leafy, erect plant has many small wispy white flowers which may serve well as a border or background plant.  It has nice color in fall and persistent reddish winter stems.  The plant forms clumps over time.

A second species in the genus occurs in Arkansas, namely, Bowman’s root or false ipecac (Gillenia trifoliata), found in northwest and northcentral Arkansas.  Bowman’s root has larger flowers, unlobed leaves, and narrow untoothed stipules that drop off the plant before inflorescence occurs.

Article and photographs by ANPS member Sid Vogelpohl

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