David & Marjorie Goodchild (National Plant Collection Holders)
Potentilla, from the Latin potens meaning powerful was named for its herbal qualities.The leaves and roots of many of the species are used as astringents. The fleshy roots of some are edible and taste similar to parsnips and the shoots of others are used in salads. The plants are rich in tannins and so have had an industrial and commercial use in tanning hides and as a red dye for wool. It is commonly called a cinquefoil (five leaved) and belongs to the rose family (rosaceae). In 1753 Linneaus named the genus in his Species Plantarum. The only definitive work about Potentilla is in high German by TheodoreWolf (1908).
Potentilla are easy to grow, flower for long periods throughout the spring and summer and apart from one or two renegades are very controlled in habit. Many of the species are alpine and therefore extremely hardy given the right conditions and even the herbaceous cultivars will survive the severest of winters to re appear in the spring even though at a cursory glance the plants look dead. They are not affected by any serious pest or disease, which must surely commend them. Vine weevil grubs may attack the roots but rarely is the plant completely destroyed. Appropriate nematodes are an effective control.
Most species prefer well drained soil and spartan conditions but the taller growing herbaceous cultivars appreciate a slightly richer medium. They are all sun lovers but will tolerate part shade.
Potentilla are native to Europe, Scandinavia, the Himalayas, the Arctic, Asia and Northern America. Although less common, some species are found in the alpine and high mountainous regions of the tropics and S. America. Potentilla anserina is a native of New Zealand. Their habitat varies: the different species thrive in dry calcareous rocky places, boggy and acid fens, dry sandy areas and dry lowland grassland. They are found at over 2000m as well as on the sea shore. All of which suggests that there is a Potentilla for whatever your soil or climate.