Also called Mountain Indian Physic, Dropwort, Indian Hippo (short for hippocras – a medicinal wine-spice infusion), and sometimes American Ipecac (although this is more commonly applied to the more southern and less ornamental G. stipulata), Bowman’s Root grows to about 60-90 cm (2-3 feet) and does well in partial shade or sun (if the soil is moist) and mildly acid (pH 6.1-9) to neutral soils. Its natural habitat is dry, open deciduous woodlands. I especially like the loose panicles of pinkish white irregularly regular flowers as they wave back and forth on red stems in the slightest breeze. Although Bowman’s Root has a fairly broad distribution, its survival is considered ‘Threatened’ in Michigan, so this is one of those wildflowers one should not remove from the woods. Nor is their any need to since its seeds germinate easily and it is readily available in commercial greenhouses (my plants came from Hole’s).
Bowman’s Root has been the subject of a fair amount of scientific study, mostly because it has a low haploid chromosome number (n=9) – although related members of the Rose family usually have 17 chromosomes – possibly derived from the doubling of 9 chromosomes and then the loss of one. Thus, something like Bowman’s Root may have been ancestral to a lineage of Rosaceae that now is home to much more famous, if woody and pome-producing, relatives like apples, pears, mountain ash, hawthorn, cotoneaster, and saskatoons. Less seems to be known about the pollinators of Bowman’s Root, but I have found records for the small carpenter bee Ceratina dupla, a couple of mason bees (Osmia albiventris, O. distincta), and a small sweat bee Lasioglossum (Dialictus) imitatum. I’ve seen a small halictid bee, possibly a species of Lasioglossum, pushing its way through the tight basal cluster of petals in my yard. The rather small opening does seem to indicate that the nectar and pollen may be somewhat exclusive, but the Scarlet Malachite Beetle pictured below had no problem forcing its way in.
As well as having interesting chromosomes, Bowman’s Root was the cause of a minor taxonomic war during the last century. As I understand the casus belli, the name Gillenia was proposed by Moench in 1802 in honour of the 17th Century German Botanist Arnold Gillen. Unfortunately, previously in 1763 another botanist, Adanson, had had the same idea, but for a different plant and proposed the genus Gillena. Unlike zoologists, botanists won’t tolerate names that sound alike but are spelled slightly differently, so in 1894 another botanist (Nathaniel Britton, the famous founder of the New York Botanical Garden) declared Gillenia a homonym and orthographic variant of Gillena and banished it in favour of a replacement genus name: Porteranthus (named for a buddy of his named Porter). However, both names continued in use with Gillenia dominating common usage and Porteranthus the more pedantic side. In the 1990’s a move was made to conserve the name Gillenia (a couple of snippy notes can be found in Taxon if anyone is interested in distilled botanical vitriol) and eventually triumphed because Gillena Adanson was a synonym of Linnaeus’ Clethra (which includes the beautiful North American shrub Clethra alnifolia – which, alas, cannot handle the Alberta winters) and not validly published.
Bowman’s Root is also part of the American plant pharmacopeia. According to the Plants for A Future Database, the dried, powdered root acts as a cathartic, mild emetic, diaphoretic, expectorant, and tonic. In other words, it makes you head for the bathroom to run at both ends while sweating and coughing up phlegm and, when it is over, you feel better. I think my Bowman’s Root may be looking at me a bit apprehensively at the moment, but they should have no worries. Your roots are safe – I get my tonic from the bark of cinchona trees and with enough gin I usually feel just fine.