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What is a Potentilla?

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  • Written By: C. Ausbrooks
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 29 October 2016
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Potentilla is a genus of rose from the family Rosaceae. They are commonly called cinquefoils and are made up of around 500 different species of perennial, annual, and biennial herbs. The name of the plant orginates from the Medieval Latin word tormentilla, meaning “little torment.” This comes from the species potentilla erecta, which is thought to cure mild stomach pain. They are also commonly called “barren strawberries” due to their similar appearance, and lack of edible fruit.

Potentilla are most commonly found in the northern hemisphere, but a few species can be found in New Guinea. They often appear in regions overrun with common heather. Larvae of both butterflies and moths eat the leaves as a primary food source. The mature butterflies often come back to feed on the nectar. The larvae of polish carmine scales are parasites that absorb nutrients from the roots of the plant.

Many species of potentilla have leaves divided into five sections, like fingers on a hand. This is where the name cinquefoil comes from, literally meaning "five leaves." Some species have as few as three leaves while others have up to 15. Flowers are usually yellow, but can be white, pink, or red. Cultivar varieties can come in any color other than blue.

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The fruit of the potentilla is very similar to the strawberry; while most are dry, some can be moist and fleshy. The outer layer of the fruit is covered with seeds, which are technically considered to be nuts. Many species are commonly grown as ornaments. The potentilla atrosanguinea and the sulphur cinquefoil are often used due to their height, and bright, colorful flowers. Hybrids of potentilla have been created with double-flowers and improved growth.

There are many cultivar species of potentilla that are extremely adaptable to harsh soils, can live in droughts or swamps, or flower from June until the first frost. Once the plant is established, it requires very little upkeep. They are able to adapt to almost any place they are planted, except for pots. The root systems of potentilla grow to great sizes, and the confinement of pots or containers can cause the flower to die.

Many species are commonly used in herbalism. Potentilla fragarioides is used in traditional Chinese medicine as a haemostatic. Potentilla erecta has been used in Europe to treat gastrointestinal problems such as diarrhea and upset stomach. This herb also contains a red dye called tormentole, which was used to dye leather in the past.

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