Courtesy of Marty Michener
Courtesy of Marty Michener

Goldthread or Goldenthread, Coptis trifolia

Family: Ranunculaceae, the Crowfoot or Buttercup Family

Description: Native rhizomatous, small perennial herb. Evergreen, shiny, basal leaves divided into 3 toothed leaflets. Rhizomes bright yellow and hairy.

Abundance: Occasional on Mt. Desert Island, Endangered in parts of the USA

Habitat: Shady, wet woods, marsh and swamp edges

Plant Parts Used: Rhizome, leaf occasionally

Medicine: Cankers, body aches, sore throats, antiseptic, antibacterial, Lyme disease

Other: Dye

Goldthread is much more common inland than on the coast due to the higher percentage of dark, wet woods. Also called canker root, goldthread has historically been used for treating cankers or mouth ulcers. The Penobscot, Mi’kmaq, Ojibwa, Mohegan, Iroquois and Malecite all used a tea of the rhizomes as a mouthwash to treat mouth problems, while the Malecite and Potawatomi used the rhizome similarly for treating cankers and baby teething troubles. Ray harvests pieces of the rhizome, so that the plant can stay alive, and dries and powders it. He uses the powder for treating sore throats and acting as an aspirin substitute for body aches and pains. The rhizome of goldthread contains some of the highest concentrations of berberine in plants, 40-90,000 parts per million (ppm). Dr. Duke lists berberine as a chemical that has over 100 medicinal activities, which are currently being researched extensively.

Terry-Anya once made a tincture of the rhizome, which she gathered from a forest that was about to be transformed into a housing development, to help extract hydrastine, a compound  that Arthur mentioned being useful to help with Lyme disease. A tea of the rhizome is antiseptic and antibacterial: good for sores, cuts, colds, infections, and parasites—but it should not be taken in excess, Sue told me, because it can be toxic in high doses. Goldthread rhizomes have also been a popular natural dye, but there are many other more plentiful yellow dyes which do not disturb the forest floor when harvested. Goldthread is listed as endangered in Maryland and sensitive in Washington. Due to its small size, overharvesting is almost too easy so be aware of the local population of goldthread if choosing to harvest.

A lush patch of goldthread amongst some bright mushrooms
A lush patch of goldthread among some bright mushrooms

For more information about goldthread identification from another Mainer, check out this post on Josh’s Journal.

Note: This post is part of my Plants and People series. See my Plants and People page for more information about the project and the people referenced in this post.


  • Duke, James A. “Activities of a Specific Chemical Query.” GRIN National Genetic Resources Program. Web. 17 Dec. 2010. <;.
  • Haines, Arthur. “Preserving Native Plant Knowledge.” Somes-Meynell Wildlife Sanctuary, Mt. Desert, Maine. 9 Oct. 2010. Lecture.
  • Hayes, Terry-Anya. Personal interview. 27 Oct. 2010.
  • Michener, Martin C. Botany Everywhere: Woods, Field, Home, and Garden Plants of NE USA, Third Edition. Hollis, NH: MIST Software Associates, Inc., 2009. PDF.
  • Mittelhauser, Glen H., Linda L. Gregory, Sally C. Rooney, and Jill E. Weber. The Plants of Acadia National Park. Orono, Me.: University of Maine, 2010. Print.
  • Moerman, Daniel E. Native American Medicinal Plants: an Ethnobotanical Dictionary. Portland, Or.: Timber, 2009. Print.
  • “Plants Profile: Coptis Trifolia (L.) Salisb., Threeleaf Goldthread.” USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. USDA. Web. 5 Mar. 2011. <;.
  • Reitze, Raymond and Nancy. Personal interview. 8, 15 Oct. 2010.
  • Szwed, Sue. Personal interview. 12 Nov. 2010.