Species distinguishing characteristics:
- Clusters of male and female flowers at top of stems on separate plants
- Dangling male flowers with yellow-tipped, purple pollen stalks
- Star-shaped, reddish-purple female flowers
- Delicate, waxy leaves divided into 3–4 leaflets with 3 rounded lobes
- Thin leaf stalks clasp the stem
- Numerous male (stamens) and female (pistils) organs
- Pistils and seeds (or seed capsules) with a small spur at the tip
- Fruit is a berry or 1-celled capsule that opens along a seam
- Many species are poisonous
Erect, rhizomatous perennial, 30–100 cm tall.
Leaves and stems:
Foliage is purplish when young. Thin, leafy stems with alternate leaves attach by thin stalks that clasp the stem. Delicate leaves are divided into 3–4 leaflets with 3 rounded lobes. Leaves, 1–3 cm long, are smooth and have a waxy, bluish-white cast.
Numerous flowers, 2–6 mm long, with 4 (or 5) greenish sepals and no petals that form loose, branched clusters at the top of stems. The branches of the flower heads are nearly equal in length. Male and female flowers on separate plants. Male flowers have dangling, purplish pollen stalks (stamens) with yellow tips, like tiny chandeliers. Female flowers composed of reddish-purple, star-shaped cluster of female organs (pistils). Male plants often grow in a patch with other male plants and female plants grow with other female plants in separate patches.
Rhizomes and yellow roots.
Star-shaped clusters of greenish to purplish, hard-coated seeds (achenes) attach by short-stalks. Seeds, 5–8 mm long, are slightly flattened and taper to a point at the ends and have 3 prominent ridges on each side.
Moist forests openings, thickets, meadows, avalanche paths at low to subalpine elevations.
The young leaves are edible raw or cooked and have a sweet, almost saccharine taste. The root contains berberine, a highly valued antiseptic/antibacterial chemical. The roots are used in tea for colds, as a poultice for rheumatism, and chewed to reduce phlegm, improve blood circulation, and to treat diarrhea. Use this herb with caution, as many species in the Buttercup family (Ranunculaceae) are toxic. Some Native American tribes mixed western meadowrue with northern sweet grass (Anthoxanthum nitens) and made a tea for clearing congested sinuses. Other tribes burned the plants as an insect-repellent. The Blackfoot people and other tribes used the seeds and flowers as a perfume and a love potion.