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Herb Paris

Paris quadrifolia

  • Family: Wake Robin Family – Melanthiaceae (formerly Trilliaceae)
  • Growing form: Perennial herb. Rootstock creeping, scaly.
  • Height: 15–35 cm (6–14 in.). Stem unbranched. With slightly unpleasant fragrance.
  • Flower: Corolla regular (actinomorphic), lime green, 4–7 cm (1.6–2.8 in.) broad; petals 4, linear, yellowish black. Sepals 4, lanceolate, green. Stamens usually 8. Pistil of 4 fused carpels, styles 4, stigmas narrow. Flower solitary, terminating stem.
  • Leaves: Whorled on upper part of stem, almost stalkless, usually 4(–5). Blade obovate–elliptic, with tapered tip, with entire margins, net-veined.
  • Fruit: Bluish black, waxy, juicy, 1–2 cm (0.4–0.8 in.) broad berry.
  • Habitat: Young forests, broad-leaved forests, coppices, forest margins, fens and stream-side swamps, stream valleys, stream banks, springs.
  • Flowering time: May–June.

Herb Paris’s generic name Paris is a reference to the Troyan prince of the same time who in Ancient Greek mythology was asked by the god Hermes to give a golden apple to the most beautiful goddess. From the point of view of the plant’s name-giver, herb Paris’s four leaves represent Paris and the three competing goddesses, and the berry growing at the top is the apple. The reference in herb Paris’s scientific name to its four leaves sometimes misses the mark, however, as in a good spot it might have five or even as much as seven leaves; young plants and those growing in the barren north might only have three, however. Herb Paris is a very good indicator of soil fertility because the land should be at least moderately nutritious for the species to thrive. Even in its best habitats it often grows sparsely and hardly forms real stands. Herb Paris is common or at least quite common as far north as Kainuu, but it also grows rarely in northern Finland.

Herb Paris’s flower is not particularly charming and its scent is not very appealing either. The abundance of flies that visit the flower are definitely attracted by something, however, perhaps the dark pistil, which some think smells like rotting meat. The bluish black berry that develops at the top of the plant is reminiscent of blueberry, and it can be picked by mistake if it is growing among the berry plants. The berry is poisonous to humans, and even a few berries are enough to cause symptoms. The disgusting flavour of the berry is a good safeguard however against ingesting a fatal dose. Apart from this, the berries are solitary, so nobody could collect a handful without noticing. A lot of the plant’s old Finnish names, as well as its current one – wolfberry – warn of danger. Moss patches and forest litter quite efficiently prevent the seeds from developing, so herb Paris survives and spreads in many places through its rootstock.

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