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Porteranthus trifoliatus (Bowman's root)
Species Distribution Map: Click to enlarge
Map Color Key © 2013 BONAP

Porteranthus trifoliatus

Bowman's root or fawn's breath

(syn. Gillenia trifoliata)

Also known as Indian Physic or American Ipecac, Bowman's Root is an easy-to-grow native for bright shade or partial sun and it tolerates tree root competition well as long at it has a nice layer of organic mulch. Bowman's Root is lovely in a mass planting where its lacy white flowers can shimmer in a light breeze. It makes a nice filler - think Gaura for shade! A compact, rounded plant is topped in late spring with ethereal white flowers growing in a few loose terminal panicles, with red petioles and mahogany stems. Clean, disease-free foliage often turns deep bronzy red in fall and contrasts beautifully with the more typical oranges and yellows in the perennial border. Interesting form and unique seed heads persist into winter. Great for cut flowers!

Porteranthus trifoliatus LP32 - 32 per flat Availability
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2-3 Feet


3 Feet


30 Inches

Bloom Color


USDA Hardiness Zone 4-8

Bowman's root Interesting Notes

Imagine delicate wands of small white flowers floating in the late spring breeze and you can understand the informal, ethereal quality that Bowman’s root brings to the garden. This herbaceous perennial grows 2-3’ tall with an upright spreading habit. Green foliage and stems accentuate the panicles of 1” wide, star-like blooms. Gillenia trifoliata thrives in fertile, evenly-moist soil and grows equally well in part shade or full sun, although it prefers a little shade in the hottest part of the day. This is a wonderful plant to use in mass plantings or in the border with other natives such as Penstemon smalliiPenstemon calycosusSisyrinchium angustifoliumLilium canadense, and Silene virginica. - Mt. Cuba Center

The two species of Indian-physic have a rich tradition as medicinals, but they have been inexplicably neglected as garden plants. This is unfortunate as they are outstanding ornamentals for a wide variety of garden situations. Porteranthus are shrubby perennials in the Rose family, with zigzagging stems of toothy 3-parted leaves adorned in early summer with a weightless cloud of starry flowers that float above the foliage on invisible stems. The flowers have 5 narrow, pointed petals that array themselves unevenly, giving the plants an unmistakable, charming informality. They remind me quite a bit of shadbush (Amelanchier) flowers in this way. After the blooms fade, the leaves remain in good condition all summer and then in fall are set ablaze in glorious autumnal oranges and yellows. Porteranthus are tough, long-lived, and drought-tolerant plants, with a thick woody crown that never needs dividing. American colonists learned from the Native Americans to use the bark from the roots as a powerful emetic, explaining the common name American Ipecac.

The name Bowman's Root may refer to a bow man, or a man who uses bows and arrows, as this species was widely used as a medicinal by Native Americans in the East. - From Growing and Propagating Wildflowers by Bill Cullina

Porteranthus or Gillenia?
Apparently both names are equally correct, or incorrect depending on who you ask. This species was named Gillenia by German botanist Conrad Moench. Somewhere along the way a Professor Britton claimed Gillenia was too close to the existing shrub called Gillena and he renamed it Porteranthus in honor of his friend Prof. Thomas C. Porter. But it turns out that the plant that was Gillena was actually already named Clethra and so the name Gillenia should be used, according to the rule that older names are more correct. However, another rule states that since Gillenia was once designated a synonym it must remain so, thus making Porteranthus correct. In current usage both are seen, but Porteranthus is more often found in botanical references.

Porteranthus trifoliatus Growing and Maintenance Tips

Thrives in moist, acidic to neutral, humus-rich soil, but is quite drought tolerant once established. It prefers shade in the hottest part of the day. Use as backround plant in perennial beds or in mass plantings to give a full, airy effect. Somewhat slow to establish, but like Amsonia or BaptisiaPorteranthus is worth the wait!

Good Substitutions

Bowman's root Porteranthus trifoliatus 'Pink Profusion'

Key Characteristics & Attributes

Full Shade
Full Shade
Part Sun
Part Sun
Deer Resistant
Deer Resistant
Drought Tolerant
Drought Tolerant

Additional Information

Soil Moisture Needs
Plug Type
Landscape Plug™
Season of Interest (Flowering)
Late Spring / Early Summer
Green Infrastructure
For Animals
Caution: Toxic
Native to North America
Propagation Type