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Native to eastern and central North America, cinquefoil is a perennial herb also known as "five fingers," "five-leaf grass" and "creeping cinquefoil." It derives its name from old French for “five leaf.” The plant is easy to recognize growing wild in open woods, on hillsides, in meadows and even along roads. Similar to the creeping of the strawberry plant, cinquefoil sends its stem runners along the ground, rooting at intervals to send up a stalk.
The stalk bears either a five-petal buttercup-like flower or a leaf that is divided into five serrated lobes. Each lobe or leaflet is about 1.5 inches (3.8 cm) long with scattered hairs. The thread-like stem runners can reach up to 5 feet (1.5 m) and, therefore, cinquefoil can easily cover a wide area.
The flowers, which close up at night, bloom from May through August. Though most often bright yellow, flowers may occasionally be white or pink. Cinquefoil is edible, commonly in salads, and has medicinal uses dating back to medieval times. Though cinquefoil looks like a strawberry plant, its fruit is dry and inedible, giving rise to its nickname, "barren strawberry."
A member of the rose family, Rosaceae, cinquefoil’s Latin name, Potentilla simplex, is reflective of its medicinal usage and some of the folklore with which it is associated. Rich in tannins and, therefore, very astringent, this creeping herb has been widely used as an antiseptic and tonic. It has been utilized for everything from mouth ailments and diseases to fevers, diarrhea and related digestive problems. Added to bath water, cinquefoil’s herbal infusion has been used for a broad range of skin irritations and can be applied topically to soothe sores, rashes, and various skin problems. Its leaf infusion is used in skin lotions and anti-wrinkle creams.
During medieval times, the five leaves of the cinquefoil symbolized the body’s five senses. Its image was highly sought by knights, who were only permitted to display the plant on their shields if they’d demonstrated mastery over themselves. This remedial “potent” herb was also widely used in medieval love potions and to ward off witches.
The hardy cinquefoil thrives in well-drained, rich soil but can tolerate clay, rocky or slightly alkaline soils. Full sun is best, but cinquefoil can tolerate some shade. In landscaping, this low-maintenance shrub-like herb is often used in rock gardens, as a border plant, as ground cover and as a foundation plant.