Paris quadrifolia

Herb-Paris Family [Melanthiaceae]

month8may month8jun month8june

Berries: berryZpossible        berryZblack  (poisonous, large)
berry8jul berry8july berry8aug berry8sep berry8sept berry8oct

smell8foetid smell8putrescent smell8foul smell8awful

31st May 2016, Gait Barrows, Cumbria. Photo: © RWD
Typically prefers to grow in dappled shade deciduous old woodland in limestone areas and grows to just 0.3m high. It will also grow in neutral and acidic soils.

31st May 2016, Gait Barrows, Cumbria. Photo: © RWD
It has but one large whorl of leaves, typically just four broad oval, nearly round, with a short cuspidate point.

17th May 2013, Sussex. Photo: © Dawn Nelson
Grows in damp (but not wet) deciduous woods on limy soils, occasionally in grykes. Associates with Dog's Mercury (Mercurialis perennis), as here.

17th May 2013, Sussex. Photo: © Dawn Nelson
Leaves are in a single whorl, flower atop a short stalk just above.

Early June 2013, Bavaria. Photo: © Dawn Nelson
Leaves strikingly very broad and usually numbering four. It looks like the leaves can become variegated (top right) - these are presumably new growth from suckering rhizomes.

17th May 2013, Sussex. Photo: © Dawn Nelson
Leaves number anywhere between three and eight - this one has five. The archetypical is four.

17th May 2013, Sussex. Photo: © Dawn Nelson
There are usually four (but up to 6) long and extremely narrow and green petals (barely discernible) plus four much broader but about equal length concolorous sepals. Anthers usually 8 (but up to 12) darker-green stamens with yellow anthers.

17th May 2013, Sussex. Photo: © Dawn Nelson
Yellow anthers partially sheathing the stamens half-way along their length. Fruit at the top, a highly toxic black berry which open naturally (dehescent). It has (nominally) four chambers. Atop the berry are four purplish-black styles.

7th June 2014, Gait Barrows, Cumbria. Photo: © RWD
The leaves are not glossy, just wet with rain!

7th June 2014, Gait Barrows, Cumbria. Photo: © RWD
Flower stalks actually very long!

7th June 2014, Gait Barrows, Cumbria. Photo: © RWD
When in fruit, the stamens en-cage the fruit, with their anthers now white. Four narrow sepals surround the fruit.

7th June 2014, Gait Barrows, Cumbria. Photo: © RWD
Leaves fairly thick, edges might be slightly rolled underneath adding stiffness.

31st May 2016, Gait Barrows, Cumbria. Photo: © RWD
The petals are green, long and very narrow and four in number. The sepals slightly below the petals are about as long but much broader than the petals and taper to a point.

31st May 2016, Gait Barrows, Cumbria. Photo: © RWD
The nominally 8 filaments are long, green and angled upwards at about 45°. For the middle third of their length they are clad with long, split, narrow anthers bearing cream-coloured pollen. In the centre is a nominally 4-chambered black mis-shapen fruit with nominally 4 long concolourous styles curving outwards from the dimpled centre.

22nd April 2017, Loggerheads Country Pk, North Wales. Photo: © RWD
This woodland site has a preponderance of 5-leaved variants.

22nd April 2017, Loggerheads Country Pk, North Wales. Photo: © RWD
A 5-leaved variant; possibly missing a sixth leaf(?).

31st May 2016, Gait Barrows, Cumbria. Photo: © RWD
Unobstructed plan view. (Its associate Dog's Mercury is top left)

Not to be semantically confused with : Herb-Robert (Geranium robertianum) [a plant with similar name belonging to a differing family]

Uniquely identifiable characteristics

Distinguishing Feature :

The plant grows in ancient woodland on moist but not soggy basic soils, not in open places, preferring dappled shade, but occasionally can be found lurking in the grykes of limestone paving.

From the black berries a persistent red dye can be extracted which will turn violet on addition of Lemon Juice (Citric Acid), whilst the leaves yield a yellow dye. It usually spreads vegetatively by means of underground rhizomes. It can propagate from seed but germination is very slow. The flowers have an obnoxious odour reminiscent of decaying meat, but your Author did not smell anything.

It was once used as a herb and medicinally, but perhaps its toxicity has out-dated its use in modern pharmacy. It contains some steroidal compounds that may be cardiotoxic, see below.


The whole plant is toxic, the berries highly so.

Some older sources claim it contains the steroidal compound called Ecdysterone which is a steroidal hormone active in insects and crustaceans! Ecdysterone now seems to be sold as a body-building steroid. The same source claims Herb-paris also contains the steroidal saponins paridine, aristyphnin and α-paristyphnine, but the structural formulae for these three compounds is not to be found on the internet (they may have different common names now). α-paristyphnine is both a respiratory and a myocardial depressant.

Ecdysterone is notably different to most other plant steroidal compounds. Your Author has re-drawn it using the same skeletal framework as Pannogenin below so that the reader can compare them directly. Ecdysterone is an analgesic and is an immnunostimulant.

More recent studies claim Herb-paris contains the spirostanol Pannogenin, which is structurally almost identical to the aglycone of Saponoside A but with the addition of an -OH group. The same researchers have also discovered several other compounds structurally related to Pannagenin in Herb-paris, but they lack common names so your Author has not drawn them. This is a much more believable source. In species belonging to the Paris genera Spirostanins based upon the aglycone Diosgenin, such as the triple glycoside Gracillin are found, but your Author does not know if that includes Paris quadrifolia. The saponin Polyphyllin D, another spirostanol, is also found in Herb Paris. Many of these saponins exhibit anti-cancer activity. The Polyphyllins, of which there are about a dozen, are named after Paris polyphylla in which they were first found, and occur in other Paris species.

One of the structurally very unusual Pannogenin-related glycosides is:
(23S,24S)-spirosta-5,25(27)-diene-1β,3β,21,23,24-pentol- 1-O-β-D -apiofuranosyl- (1-->3)- α-L-rhamnopyranosyl- (1-->2)-[β-D- xylopyranosyl- (1-->3)]-β- D-glucopyranoside 21-O-β-D- apiofuranoside 24-O-β- D-fucopyranoside

This same modern source also claims Herb-paris contains 5-HydroxyEcdysterone and 20-HydroxyEcdysone, so it may well contain Ecdysterone too.

  Paris quadrifolia  ⇐ Global Aspect ⇒ Melanthiaceae  

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Paris quadrifolia

Herb-Paris Family [Melanthiaceae]