Today’s entry continues the medicinal plants diversity series, though I’ve not been able to find a reference to medicinal use of this particular species. However, other species in the genus are used in treatments (due to the same compounds in the roots), so it isn’t a stretch to imagine it has medicinal potential.
I became aware of the medicinal uses of Coptis while researching economic values of members of the buttercup family for my presentation to the Native Plant Society of BC last week. Modern economic uses for this family, beyond ornamentals, are few and far between, but the genus Coptis stands out. As one example, an eastern Himalayan relative of today’s species, Coptis teeta, is a prized Ayurvedic herb. Known as Mishmi (from the Mishmi Hills of Arunachal Pradesh), its roots contain berberine and it is used to treat gastrointestinal complaints and malarial infections. Due to a combination of deforestation and overharvesting, however, Coptis teeta has been brought close to extinction. Other members of the genus have also been used medicinally by their respective local indigenous peoples, including Coptis chinensis (China), Coptis japonica (southeast Asia) and Coptis trifolia (North America) (ref: The Cultural History of Plants, ed. Prance and Nesbitt, but also see: WHO Monographs on Selected Medicinal Plants – Volume 1, pp. 105-144).
Discussion on the pros and cons of berberine as a medicinal compound are difficult to find in specific relation to Coptis, but another member of the Ranunculaceae makes a good substitute. The increasingly-threatened goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) has been somewhat well-studied as an antibacterial and anti-inflammatory due to its high concentrations of berberine; you can read about some of the evidence (or lack thereof) via the University of Maryland Medical Center: Hydrastis canadensis, or the Dietary Supplement Database from the University of California, San Diego: Hydrastis canadensis. As an aside, the reasons for the decline of Hydrastis canadensis in its native range of eastern North America are unsustainable harvesting and mountaintop removal mining.
Coptis laciniata is commonly known as Oregon goldthread, and this low-growing perennial is found in wet coniferous forests on the west side of coastal mountain ranges from Washington to California. For additional photographs, see the Burke Museum’s entry for Coptis laciniata or CalPhoto’s Coptis laciniata image collection.