COMMON NAME(S) / NAME(S) OF COMMERCE
Goldenseal in woodland at MoonBranch Botanicals
CURRENT & TRADITIONAL USE
Goldenseal was well known to Native Americans, who used it as an eye remedy, appetite stimulant, and skin cancer treatment as well as an anti-inflammatory agent and general respiratory and digestive tonic. The Eclectic physicians of the 1800s (predecessors of today’s naturopaths) considered goldenseal an overall remedy for any mucous membrane problem. They employed it for a variety of skin, lung, mouth, sinus, and throat problems as well as digestive and intestinal complaints. They also relied on its effectiveness as a stimulant, antiseptic, astringent and anti-inflammatory. It was an official remedy in The United States Pharmacopoeia from 1830 to 1840, and again from 1860 to 1926. It was particularly valued as an eyewash, used to treat everything from simple redness to serious disorders.
Until the 1970s, the goldenseal compounds hydrastine and berberine were the active ingredients in many commercial eye drop preparations. Today, goldenseal or berberine are listed as official medicines in the pharmacopoeias of 11 countries worldwide. In the United Kingdom, goldenseal is an approved remedy for menstrual problems, indigestion, gastritis, eye disorders and mucosal inflammation.
Scientific support for health benefits
To date, in spite of goldenseal’s huge popularity and folkloric reputation as a “cure-all,” not a single clinical study has been performed on whole-plant goldenseal. There is no clinical or laboratory evidence that goldenseal stimulates immune function. A number of in vitro studies have shown that goldenseal has antimicrobial effects against a wide range of bacteria, fungi, and parasites. However, because goldenseal is poorly absorbed through the intestines, experts believe that it is unlikely to function as a systemic antibiotic.
On the other hand, the fact that goldenseal is poorly absorbed through the intestines may account for its reputation as a treatment for bacterial diarrhea. Clinical research on isolated berberine suggests that it may be effective against bacterial diarrhea, parasitic infection with organisms such as Giardia, and eye infections, especially those caused by Chlamydia trachomatis.
Despite goldenseal’s widespread use to “cleanse the urine” before drug testing, several studies have demonstrated that the root is ineffective for this purpose (Foster, 1989
Primary chemical constituents
Berberine, hydrastine (both alkaloids)
Substitutes for various applications include yerba mansa (Anemopsis californica) and berberine-containing plants, including Oregon grape (Mahonia repens), American goldthread (Coptis trifolia), and Chinese goldthread (Coptis chinensis). However, many do not consider these plants good substitutes for goldenseal, and there is concern that they too could be subject to over harvest.
One source claimed that Oregon grape root has 70% of the chemical activity of goldenseal; it is also much less costly. In trade, Oregon grape root is a common goldenseal adulterant.
DESCRIPTION & NATURAL HISTORY
Natural Range in United States
Hydrastis canadensis L., member of the Ranunculaceae family, is native to North America with a natural range extending from southern Quebec to northern Georgia, and west to Missouri. Goldenseal is an herbaceous perennial and can be found in rich, densely shaded, deciduous forests. The plant emerges in early spring from buds that overwinter on the perennial rootstock, growing each year to a height of eight to fourteen inches. The leaf is cordate-shaped with a long petiole and can have three to seven lobes. The margins of the leaves are double serrated. Leaves can span three to twelve inches in diameter and three to eight inches long. The single greenish-white flower blooms briefly from late April to May, depending upon location. A berry forms, turning red in July, and contains up to thirty black seeds. The tumeric-colored rhizome and fibrous roots are harvested after the fifth growing season (or later), when the plant is started from seed.
PRODUCTION & MANAGEMENT
Sustainable wild harvest
Because of the CITES listing, whole or cut and sifted wild harvested material is for domestic use only. As domestic use constitutes the largest portion of the goldenseal market, CITES should not be a major deterrent to advancing the market for wild-harvested material. In addition, the significant publicity surrounding the plight of goldenseal also makes it ideal for high-profile work on sustainable wild harvest. On the other hand, cultivated material is now gaining in commerce and has the apparent advantage of higher alkaloid content.
Controlled seasonal wild harvest may not only solve this last problem, but can reduce problems related to early collection if harvest is timed to occur after the plant has gone to seed. This practice can improve the overall sustainability of wild population by giving plants a chance to reproduce before they are destroyed. From a market perspective, the inability of herb traders overseas to buy whole roots creates an opportunity for American companies to produce custom-milled goldenseal or, in cooperation with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, to be an approved supplier of whole roots or coarser cut material.
However, the concept of sustainable wild-harvest of goldenseal remains controversial. Herbalists were noting scarcity, presumably due to over harvest, as early as the 19th century. In 1997, goldenseal was classified by the US government as “endangered”—meaning in danger of extinction throughout all or a portion of its range—in Connecticut, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Vermont. It is “threatened”—meaning likely to become endangered—in Maryland, Michigan, and Tennessee, and “imperiled”—with only 6 to 20 known occurrences in the state—in Alabama and New York. Doubts about the sustainability of goldenseal wild harvest made the plant the “poster child” of the medicinal plant conservation movement spearheaded by United Plant Savers and was the driving force behind the cultivation effort that followed.
Most cultivation issues have been resolved by growers in Wisconsin and Canada, who are producing quality goldenseal. However, there is always considerable risk involved in cultivating native species inside their normal range because of the greater susceptibility to insects and disease that come with abnormally high population concentrations.
Harvest timing is critical. The alkaloid content increases as the plant prepares for dormancy. Although wild harvest occurs from June to October, the best quality is obtained late in the season, specifically September and October.
Cultivated material has a higher total alkaloid content and generally contains less dirt, so it is considered superior to the wild harvested goldenseal. For cultivated material, harvest takes place after the first frost when alkaloid content is highest. This may be the main factor in the superiority of cultivated material. In addition, one source reports that cultivated roots are much larger, averaging 15 g in weight, as opposed to 3 g for wild roots. According to another source, goldenseal quality depends primarily on the grower and post-harvest handling, as opposed to the region in which it is grown.
When grading goldenseal, overall appearance is important. Primary criteria for assessing goldenseal quality and grade are color and taste. Prospective buyers may also perform additional chemical testing of samples. Problems with cleanliness and bacteria are two significant quality issues cited by sources.
First year goldenseal root cuttings in MoonBranch Botanicals nursery
MARKET & REGULATORY
Regulatory issues related to wild harvest
Goldenseal collection is not allowed on public lands. International trade in wild-harvested raw material has been restricted since goldenseal was listed in Appendix II of CITES in June 1997. Under CITES regulations, there can be no export of goldenseal raw material, including “roots, rhizomes or rootstocks, and specimens recognizable as being parts thereof.” This includes milled bulk herb, unless it is milled finely enough that the material is not “recognizable as being parts” of goldenseal. Thus, powdered bulk herb can be exported, but not finely milled herb for extraction. Finished products are also exempt from the trade restrictions. Powdered goldenseal is exported to Europe for resale to manufacturers in the US, UK, Australia and other regions.
Regulatory issues related to marketing
In the US, goldenseal is regulated and marketed as a dietary supplement. Goldenseal is not an approved drug in any European country, though it is popular in England as a “traditional herbal remedy,” a category similar to dietary supplements in the US.
Disclaimer: The information contained herein these Plant Profile pages are for educational and conservation uses only. All information contained on these Plant Profile pages was procured through our research from available public documents and electronic media sources.
Yellow Creek Botanical Institute
North Carolina Consortium on Natural
Medicines and Public Health
USDA, NRCS PLANTS Database
USDA, United States Forest Service
USDA, ARS and University Cooperative Research and Extension
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