Achlys triphylla

Vanilla leaf


The Basics

Taxonomy: Kingdom - Plantae (plants). Subkingdom - Tracheobionta (vascular plants). Superdivision - Spermatophyta (seed plants). Division - Magnoliophyta (Flowering plants). Class - Magnoliopsida (Dicotyledons). Subclass - Magnoliidae. Order - Ranunculales. Family - Berberidaceae (Barberry). Genus -Achlys DC. (achlys) . Species - Achlys triphylla (Sm.) DC. - sweet after death .

Ecology: Moist areas in deep woods to forest openings. Located on both sides of the Cascades in Washington; British Columbia south to California.


This perennial is a spreading ground cover. Large leaves, divided into three leaflets, rise at close intervals from underground runners and are long-lasting. Stalks, less than 8 in. high, produce numerous tiny, petalless, whitish flowers clustered together in a narrow, fluffy spike. Pairs of low slender stalks grow in patches, one stalk actually a petiole, having at its tip a round leaf blade with 3 broad, fan-shaped leaflets; the other stalk ending in a narrow spike of small white flowers. The dried plants have a vanilla fragrance. Glabrous, scapose, perennial herbs, spreading widely by rhizomes, the scapes 2-4 dm. tall. Leaves: Leaves with petioles 1-3 dm. long attached to the rhizome, the blades 5-20 cm. broad, trifoliate, the segments fan-shaped, coarsely wavy-dentate. Flowers: Flowers inconspicuous, numerous in terminal, pedunculate, bractless spikes; calyx and corolla lacking; stamens about 10, the filaments narrow below and broadened above; style lacking; stigma broad, lateral. Fruits: Fruits reddish-purple, 3-4 mm. long, puberulent, the ventral side concave with a prominent ridge, the dorsal surface strongly convex.


Native Americans used Achlys triphylla leaves medicinally to treat tuberculosis. They where also used for hair washing and as an emetic. The leaves have also been dried and used to repel flies and mosquitoes. The leaves where often used to repeal other household bugs such as bedbugs.


Seed: Achlys triphylla produces small flowers in spikes that lack petals and sepals. Pollination seems to happen by wind and varies due to the pollen fertility. Seed setting also depends on the habitat it is located. Depending on if the wind can reach them then they can spread the pollen father. 

 Sprouting: Achlys triphylla relies heavily on asexual reproduction. Spreading from rhizomes which are longer then the aerial stems. New rhizomes are developed in the spring and spread to produce new growth. Fast growing for the rhizomes Achlys triphylla spreads quickly.

Species Distribution


Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center plant database
Burns, R.M., and B.H. Honkala. 1990. Silvics of North America (Volume 1: Conifers, Volume 2: Hardwoods). USDA Forest Service Agricultural Handbook 654.

USDA Plants Database
USDA, NRCS. 2016. The PLANTS Database. National Plant Data Team, Greensboro, NC 27401-4901 USA.
Distributuion map photo credit.

USFS Plant Database
Habeck, R. J. 1992. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory.

Flora of North America
Flora of North America Editorial Committee, eds. 1993+. Flora of North America North of Mexico. 19+ vols. New York and Oxford.

Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture
Burke Museum. 2017. Achlys triphylla [Online]. University of Washington. Photo credit Bud Kovalchik, 2004 Ben Legler.

The Biosystematics of Achlys
MIZUNO, M., YOSHIDA, S., IINUMA, M., TANAKA, T., LANG, F. A., & GOTO, K. (1990). Novel isocoumarin derivatives from Achlys triphylla (Berberidaceae). Chemical and pharmaceutical bulletin, 38(7), 2075-2077.

Plants for a Future
Future, P. F. (2020). Achlys triphylla. Retrieved from Plants For A Future: