April 19, 2010


One of my favorite plants is a groundcover shrub called Xanthorhiza simplicissima.  How many times have you even gone to the X section of a catalog's plant listing?  And this one's a beauty.

The name is a mouthful, but the common name, yellowroot, is both easy and descriptive.  Even the Latin is easy: xantho for yellow, and rhiza for root.  And simplicissima means, if you couldn't guess, simplest, which describes the unbranched straight stems.

You can see how yellow the roots really are.  They're kind of shockingly yellow when you dig up a runner.  The leaves look like celery leaves, don't they?

It is a woody groundcover, no taller than a foot high.  In April tiny starlike blooms form a haze of mauvy plum color, rising on delicate stalks above the branches, before the leaves come out.  I have a row of them planted in front of a long line of 5 large spruces.

I started with just 3 plants and they quickly spread by runners to form shrubby mounds of clean green foliage that light up the lower level in front of the mass of dark evergreens all summer.

They are incredibly easy.  Dig up a bright yellow runner and replant it and you have more.  Deer disdain them.  They grow in zones 3 to 9, a really wide range for any plant.  They are very long lived; there is a colony of yellowroot at the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard that is more than 100 years old.  My spruce trees will grow to overtake the yellowroot long before the century mark, but I won't worry about that for another 50 years.

They are natives of streamsides, where it is wet and cool and shady.  I either didn't know, or didn't pay attention, and mine are planted on a raised mound in front of the spruces, facing west in full sun, competing with the tree roots for water.  They thrive.

In the fall, they first turn deep bronze and copper, then saturated reds and yellows, and they look just like a rich oriental carpet spread out below the spruces.  In winter the upright twigs add a little bit of structure, but it's subtle.

This is a plant that is worth a trip all the way through the alphabet to the end, to where the Xs and Ys are hiding treasures like Xanthorhiza --- the lovely shrub yellowroot.

In Virginia Tech's plant ID files


  1. Making a note to myself: go to 'X' section of catalogue. Thanks for featuring this little known (and thankfully very hardy) shrub.

    The poem about heaven and hell in your sidebar makes me smile every time I read it.

    Christine in Alaska

  2. Interesting plant. That root is indeed very yellow! I have never heard of it, but I'll keep my eyes open for it although it may need more water than we have here.

  3. Dear Laurrie, This is a plant about which I knew absolutely nothing until now. And, as you say, looking at the roots it is easy to see where its name comes from. The hazy mauve flowers are lovely.

    Unfortunately, I shall be unable to comment or post for the next ten days or so. But, I shall return!

  4. Christine, I think this little shrub would do well in Alaska, it's hardy enough.

    Sheila, it doesn't get any extra water on its raised berm competing with tree roots, but we have had several incredibly wet summers, so it's getting lots of natural rain here.

    Edith, I hope you are off and away to somewhere interesting, and come back to blogging refreshed and energized!

  5. You've convinced me that I must try Yellowroot. I've seen it at the NC Botanical Garden and was intrigued. I'll have to see if they have it for sale next time I'm there.

  6. Sweet bay, I hope you do try it. It will spread and cover some ground quickly.

  7. And we have a winner!!! These look incredible! THANK YOU for telling me about them. I shop with Lazy S a lot and will add these to my cart!! So happy! So happy! :o)

  8. TS, I am so glad you find these a good fit for your garden design challenge. I hope they thrive for you where you want to put them!


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