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Paris quadrifolia (herb paris)

Flowering in late spring or early summer, herb paris is an attractive woodland plant with broad, spreading leaves and unusual, wispy flowers.

Paris quadrifolia (herb paris)

Paris quadrifolia (herb paris) (Photo: George Chernilevsky)

Species information

Scientific name: 

Paris quadrifolia L.

Common name: 

herb paris, true lover’s knot, devil-in-a-bush (English); cwlwm cariad (Welsh, meaning ‘love knot’)

Conservation status: 

Not assessed at an international level; Least Concern in the UK, according to IUCN Red List criteria.

Habitat: 

Moist woodland and other damp, shady places, on calcareous soils.

Key Uses: 

Ornamental.

Known hazards: 

All parts are poisonous; ingestion can induce diarrhoea, headache, nausea, vomiting, stomach ache and vertigo.

Taxonomy

Subclass: 
Superorder: 
Lilianae
Order: 
Liliales
Family: 
Melanthiaceae
Genus: Paris

About this species

The scientific and common names for herb paris are derived from the Latin par, meaning pair, referring to the symmetry of the pairs of leaves and floral parts (not the city Paris, as has commonly been assumed and the reason why paris is sometimes capitalised in its common name) and quadrifolia meaning four leaves. The leaves are positioned in opposed pairs, and the flowers are wispy and inconspicuous and have a crown of golden-yellow stamens, making Paris quadrifolia a distinctive woodland plant.

Synonym: 

Paris pentafolia P.Renault, Paris quadrifolia var. angustiovata D.Z.Ma & H.L.Liu, Paris trifolia P.Renault. (full list is available on the World Checklist)

Genus: 
Paris

Discover more

Geography and distribution

The native range of Paris quadrifolia comprises the boreal and temperate areas of Europe and extends eastwards to western Asia, western Siberia and the Himalaya.

Paris quadrifolia (herb paris) illustration

Illustration of Paris quadrifolia, by Prof. Otto Wilhelm Thomé, taken from Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz.

Description

Overview: A perennial woodland herb, 25–40 cm tall, with a rhizome (underground stem).

Leaves: Four (often 3–8; see herbarium specimen below) deep green leaves, broadly obovate, measuring 6.0–10.0 × 2.0–5.5 cm. The leaves are in a single whorl at the top of the stem and are stalkless or with only a short stalk.

Flowers: Four broad green sepals and four narrow yellow-green petals, topped with a crown of 8 (sometimes up to 12) golden-yellow stamens. The ovary has four chambers and four protruding styles.

Fruits: Black, spherical berry, approximately 13 mm in diameter, containing on average 34 seeds.

Seeds: Dark brown, egg-shaped, 2.5×1.5 mm.

'Herba paris'

The common name ‘herba paris’ was first used in 1544 by Italian botanist Pierandrea Matthioli in his Italian edition of commentaries on Dioscorides’ Materia Medica. Herb paris also appears in Gerard’s Herbal of 1636 as an antidote to highly toxic substances such as arsenic or mercury. Other common names allude to its black berry (devil-in-a-bush) or to its connections with love – the four leaves are paired like lovers and also bear a resemblance to the loops of the true lover’s knot.

Threats and conservation

Paris quadrifolia is in decline in Europe due to a reduction in broadleaved woodland, its primary habitat. Native woodland is frequently cleared to make way for conifer plantations and construction of new roads and buildings, and although this is often mitigated by the planting of new woodlands, herb paris has limited dispersal abilities and is slow to colonise new areas. The conservation of ancient broadleaved woodland is therefore key to preventing further decline of the species.

A genetic giant

Paris quadrifolia has a large quantity of DNA in its cells (with a 2C DNA value of 60 picograms) but scientists at Kew’s Jodrell Laboratory recently discovered that the related species Paris japonica has the largest genome on record, with well over twice this amount, at a staggering 152 picograms.

Uses

Paris quadrifolia is cultivated as an ornamental and makes an attractive addition to a woodland garden. Its medicinal use is almost exclusively confined to homeopathy.

Paris quadrifolia (herb paris) herbarium specimen

Specimen of Paris quadrifolia from Kew’s Herbarium (note variable number of leaves and floral parts).

Millennium Seed Bank: Seed storage

The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership aims to save plant life worldwide, focusing on plants under threat and those of most use in the future. Seeds are dried, packaged and stored at a sub-zero temperature in our seed bank vault.

Two collections of Paris quadrifolia seeds are held in Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank based at Wakehurst in West Sussex.

See Kew’s Seed Information Database for further information on Paris quadrifolia seeds

Cultivation

Herb paris requires a neutral or only slightly acidic soil that is deep, moist, well drained and humus-rich. It will do best in a partly shaded position where the soil stays moist throughout the year.

It spreads vegetatively by rhizomes, which can be divided to propagate the plant. Alternatively, seed can be collected and sown in containers immediately after harvesting.

This species at Kew

Herb paris can be seen growing in Kew’s Woodland Garden (at the southern end of the Plant Family Beds).

Dried and alcohol-preserved specimens of Paris quadrifolia are held in Kew’s Herbarium, where they are available to researchers by appointment.

Further details, including images, are available online in Kew’s Herbarium Catalogue.

View details and images

References and credits

Alpine Garden Society (2012). Plant Portraits: Paris quadrifolia. Available online (accessed 12 December 2012).

Angiosperm Phylogeny Group (2009). An update of the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group classification for the orders and families of flowering plants: APG III. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 161: 105–121.

Angiosperm Phylogeny Website (2012). Available online (accessed 10 December 2012).

Biological Records Centre (BRC) (2012). Online Atlas of the British and Irish Flora: Paris quadrifolia. Available at: http://www.brc.ac.uk/plantatlas/index.php?q=plant/paris-quadrifolia (accessed 10 December 2012).

Botanical Society of the British Isles (BSBI). Maps Scheme. Available online (accessed 10 December 2012).

Chase, M. W. & Reveal, J. L. (2009). A phylogenetic classification of the land plants to accompany APG III. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 161: 122–127.

Davies, D. (1995). Enwau Cymraeg ar Blanhigio: Welsh Names of Plants. National Museums and Galleries of Wales.

Gledhill, D. (2008). The Names of Plants, 4th Edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

IUCN (2012). IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2012.2. <www.iucnredlist.org> (accessed 10 December 2012).

Jacquemyn, H., Brys, R. & Hutchings, M. J. (2008). Biological Flora of the British Isles: Paris quadrifolia L. Journal of Ecology 96: 833–844.

JNCC (Joint Nature Conservation Committee) (2012). The Vascular Plant Red Data List for Great Britain: Conservation Designations for UK Taxa. Available online (accessed 10 December 2012).

Mabberley, D. J. (2008). Mabberley’s Plant-book: a Portable Dictionary of Plants, their Classification and Uses, 3rd Edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Mabey, R. (1996). Flora Britannica. Sinclair-Stevenson, London.

Stace, C. (2010). New Flora of the British Isles, 3rd Edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

The Plant List (2010). Paris quadrifolia. Available online (accessed 21 Nov 2012).

Tutin, T. G., Heywood, V. H., Burges, N. A., Moore, D. M., Valentine, D. H., Walters, S. M & Webb, P. A. (1980). Flora Europaea, Volume 5 Alismataceae to Orchidaceae (Monocotyledones). Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

WCSP (2012). World Checklist of Selected Plant Families. Facilitated by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Published on the Internet: Available online (accessed 10 December 2012).

Kew Science Editors: Rhian Smith and Crissy Mulrain
Kew contributors: Paul Wilkin
Copyediting: Emma Tredwell

Although every effort has been taken to ensure that the information contained in these pages is reliable and complete, notes on hazards, edibility and suchlike included here are recorded information and do not constitute recommendations. No responsibility will be taken for readers’ own actions.

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