Achlys triphylla – Vanilla leaf

green leaves of vanilla leaf

An herbaceous perennial which grows from rhizomes in moist areas in deep woods to forest openings.

At a glance

  • Family: Berberidaceae
  • Plant Type: Herb.
  • Distribution: This plant grows from British Columbia to California, growing on both sides of the Cascades crest and at the coast in Washington.
  • Height: This plant grows 8 to 16 inches (20 to 40 cm) in height.
  • Flowers: Numerous white inconspicuous flowers grow in terminal, stalked, bractless spikes. The flowers lack sepals and petals and contain approximately 10 white stamens. A showy white upright spike approximately 1 to 3 inches (2 to 5 cm) in length and 1/2 of an inch (1 cm) in width grows above the leaves.
  • Leaves: Basal leaves with 3 fan-shaped asymmetrical, coarsely blunt-toothed leaflets grow on petioles. The petioles are attached to the rhizome and are 4 to 12 inches (10 to 30 cm) in length. The leaf blades are 2 to 8 inches (5 to 20 cm) in width.
  • Fruits: Reddish-purple achenes are produced. The ventral side of the achene is concave with a prominent ridge and the dorsal surface is strongly convex. The achenes are less than 1/4 of an inch (3 to 4 mm) in length.
  • Notable features: The word “Achlys” means ‘mist’ and is believed to describe the look of the tiny white flowers. The leaves emit a vanilla-like fragrance when dried.


Many Pacific Northwest tribes (including the Cowlitz, Lummi, Saanich, Skagit, and Nlaka’pamux) have taken an infusion of leaves to treat tuberculosis. A decoction of leaves has been used as a hair wash. An infusion of smashed plants has been taken as an emetic. The leaves have been dried and hung in houses as a repellent for flies and mosquitoes. A decoction of the plant has been used as a wash to remove lice, bedbugs, and other household pests.


This article was written by Gerald B. Stanley.  For questions regarding the EERC Native Plant Guided Tour, contact Sarah Verlinde-Azofeifa at