Hydrastis canadensis L. (Goldenseal)
English Common Names
Goldenseal, golden-seal, golden seal, yellow root (yellow-root), orange-root, yellow puccoon, jaundiceroot, yelloweye, yellow paint, Indian turmeric, Indian dye, Indian plant, wild turmeric, tumeric root, ground raspberry, eye-root (eyeroot), eye-balm (eyebalm), warnera, Ohio curcuma, wild curcuma.
"golden seal" is evidently derived from the golden or yellow color of the rhizome, and the cup-like depressions remaining on it after the annual flower stems falls away; these scars look like old wax seals.
French Common Names
Sceau d'or, hydraste, hydraste du Canada.
In early spring, goldenseal plants emerge from over-wintering buds on the perennial rootstock. Generally there are two winter buds at the base of each stem. The rough-hairy, herbaceous, perennial plants reach 20-50 cm in height, and have 1-3 palmately lobed leaves up to 25 cm in diameter with 5-7 doubly serrate lobes. Single inconspicuous greenish-white flowers with the numerous stamens and pistils characteristic of the buttercup family appear in April or May.
The most evident parts of the flowers are the white filaments. The sepals and petals are small and fall soon after the flower opens. The leaves are conspicuous and resemble those of Canadian waterleaf (Hydrophyllum canadense L.), but differ in being palmate.
The raspberry-like fruit, considered inedible, is a distinctive cluster of scarlet, basally-fused berries which ripen in July and August. The stem and leaves usually die down soon after the fruit ripens. The fruit has 10-30 seeds, which are 2-5 mm long, shiny and dark brown or black with a small keel. Seed viability is rather unpredictable, and seeds that are not maintained moist die.
Plants develop very slowly from seed: during the first year, most seedlings merely develop cotyledons; production of a true leaf is delayed until the second year, and two leaves and a flower are produced in the third.
The horizontal or oblique-growing, sub-cylindrical, knotty, strong-smelling rhizome, 4-7 cm long and 0.5-2 cm wide, when fresh is yellow-brown outside, bright yellow internally, and contains a bright yellow juice. The rhizome has many fibrous rootlets. The so-called root (i.e., the rhizome) is sometimes confused with the yellow roots of other plants such as goldthread (Coptis trifolia (L.) Salisb.), yellow root (Xanthorhiza simplicissima Marsh.) and wood poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum (Michx.) Nutt.).
Classification and Geography
Hydrastis is usually classified with the buttercups (Ranunculaceae), but it is very distinctive and is sometimes placed in its own family (Hydrastidaceae).
Hydrastis canadensis is the only species in the genus. The alleged species,
"Hydrastis jezoensis Sieb. ex Miquel", reported from north-eastern Asia likely belongs to another genus. Hydrastis canadensis is distributed from southern New England west through southern Ontario to southern Wisconsin, south to Arkansas and northern Georgia. In the US, it has been recorded in 27 states.
Goldenseal belongs to the group of plants that occurred in the ancient arctotertiary forest which encircled the northern hemisphere 15-20 million years ago. Its nearest relative, Glaucidium palmatum Sieb. and Zucc., occurs in Japan. Goldenseal was only abundant in a limited area in the central portion of its total range (darker shading on accompanying map) in the states of Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia.
Collecting for the drug trade during and after the late 1800s had the effect of drastically reducing natural populations, but habitat destruction also played a role in its decline. In Canada it occurs only in southern Ontario and has been given the official status of a
"threatened" species with priority 1 ranking (the highest) for protection in this country.
Goldenseal produces colonies in shady, open deciduous woods and the edges of woodland, in the nutrient-rich, hardwood mesic forests of North America. Both seeds and rhizome division are important to natural reproduction of the species. It grows best in soils that are rich, moist, loamy, and with good drainage. In the wild, it usually is provided with a natural mulch of leaf mould or forest litter. Natural drainage is often furnished by location on hillsides. Optimum growth occurs at 75-80% shade.
Expansion of agricultural land, timber harvest, building of roads, and particularly wildcrafting, all contribute to the destruction of wild populations. Goldenseal is listed in Appendix II of the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which plays a significant role in controlling international trade in endangered flora and fauna.
The rhizome is generally the source of medical preparations, although occasionally the leaves are also harvested for medicinal use. Maximum concentration of alkaloids in the rhizome is developed in the fall.
The indigenous people of eastern North America used goldenseal to treat various kinds of illness, especially those requiring antimicrobial action. Conditions treated included skin diseases, ulcers, gonorrhoea, eye ailments, and cancers. However, goldenseal appears not to have been a medicinal plant of major importance until the mid-1800s when methods of refining the alkaloids hydrastine and berberine were developed. The properties of the alkaloids were conveniently obtained by preparing chemical compounds such as the readily soluble salt, hydrastine hydrochlorate.
The primary use of goldenseal in the mid- to late 1800s was in the treatment of digestive disorders, inflammation of mucous tissues and skin diseases, but it soon developed a reputation as a general tonic. The astringent properties (due to hydrastine, as noted below), affect mucosal surfaces both internally and externally, providing a rationale for use of goldenseal to treat mouth and gum disorders, eye afflictions, infected wounds and inflamed skin conditions. These uses were considered the chief virtues of goldenseal in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
In modern medicine, goldenseal alkaloids find some approved applications. Hydrastine and berberine are particularly pharmacologically active, affecting circulation, uterine functions, and the central nervous system. Hydrastine constricts peripheral vessels, decreases blood pressure and stimulates involuntary muscles. Berberine inhibits synthesis of DNA and proteins, and oxidation of glucose. It is used for various digestive and skin problems.
Recently berberine was found to be active against the protozoan responsible for Chagas' disease, a major health problem in Central and South America. Goldenseal alkaloids also have some anti-tumour activity.
The wide use of goldenseal to treat traveler's diarrhea, food poisoning, giardia, and cholera could be explained by the various antibiotic properties of the herb (effective against some bacteria, protozoans, and fungi).
In various commercial formulations, goldenseal is used to treat nasal congestion, mouth sores, eye infections, ringworm, hemorrhoids, acne, and as a surface antiseptic. It has a reputation for boosting the immune system. As noted below, self-medication with goldenseal preparations is not recommended.
Nevertheless goldenseal is now a component of hundreds of commercial medicinal formulations, sold in national chain drugstores, department stores, convenience stores, health food stores, and mail-order businesses. It is particularly in demand by consumers with severe chronic diseases, especially patients with AIDS.
Use of goldenseal in modern medicine is limited because of its toxicity. Dangerous levels may need to be administered to achieve therapeutically useful effects. Even external use can produce ulceration.
Taken orally in excess dosage, goldenseal can produce convulsions like those produced by strychnine, and may lead to paralysis, respiratory failure and death. Eating fresh plant material can ulcerate and inflame the mucous membranes of the mouth.
Since goldenseal can promote miscarriage, it should not be taken during pregnancy. People with cardiac problems have been advised to avoid goldenseal as it can raise blood pressure.
Goldenseal is a good example of how medicines intergrade into poisons. Its drugs are potent, but pose a serious risk, thus requiring professional guidance and research.
This herb was listed in a Health Canada document, Herbs used as non-medicinal ingredients in nonprescription drugs for human use, as unacceptable as a non-prescription drug product for oral use.
The rhizome of goldenseal is a source of the medicinal alkaloids hydrastine (1.5-4%), berberine (0.5-6%), and berberastine (2-3%), with lesser amounts of canadine and some minor alkaloids.
Indians of eastern North America used goldenseal as a yellow dye for fabrics and a stain for skin. The juice imparts a yellow color to skin and clothing and, mixed with indigo, produces green-coloured dyes. Indians also mixed goldenseal with bear grease for use as an insect repellent.
Agricultural and Commercial Aspects
The prominent use of goldenseal in proprietary medicines of past times has been resurrected in a growing popularity of the
"health food" industry. Goldenseal has become one of the top selling herbs of North America. Currently there are approximately 40 over-the-counter drugs containing goldenseal or its active ingredients on the Canadian market as elixirs, tablets, capsules or suppositories.
It is also sold as an ingredient of some herbal teas. When goldenseal tea was rumoured (incorrectly) to prevent detection of morphine in urine samples, it also became popular with drug users for preventing the detection of marihuana and cocaine. It has even been used on drugged race-horses.
Like ginseng and May-apple, a large part of the supply of goldenseal came from mountainous regions of Kentucky and West Virginia, where it was collected by people whose economy was based largely on the virgin forests of the steep mountain slopes and deep valleys.
In the late 1850s it was valued at $2.20/kg, but this value decreased as the market became adequately supplied. In the late 1800s 63 500 - 68 000 kg were collected annually, most of this being used in North America, with only 680 kg exported to Europe. About 550 dry roots are required to make one kg. Since it was collected mostly in the Ohio Valley region, Cincinnati became the major source of supply.
Although much of the current supply is from wild-collected plants, goldenseal has become a widely cultivated plant. Because increasing demand poses a threat of extirpation in some areas, it is possible that most of the future supply will come from cultivated plants. It has been cultivated in Arkansas, Michigan, North Carolina, Oregon, Tennessee, Washington, and Wisconsin, the annual production from cultivated plants exceeding several tonnes.
Some ginseng growers have found economic benefit in growing some goldenseal as well because it has similar environmental requirements allowing the use of similar equipment. It may be a little easier to grow than ginseng because it tolerates slightly higher light intensities and is less subject to diseases and pests. Because diseases make it difficult or impossible to grow ginseng in the same woodland location as consecutive plantings, goldenseal has excellent potential as a rotation crop for ginseng.
The growing popular market for goldenseal products suggests a potential for use of the plant as a diversification crop in southern Canada.
Myths, Legends, Tales, Folklore, and Interesting Facts
- After the American civil war, goldenseal was an ingredient of many patent medicines, notably in
"Dr. Pierce's Golden Medical Discovery."Unlike ginseng, which was collected entirely for the export market, goldenseal was consumed in the US, and came to acquire much of ginseng's reputation as a panacea and longevity tonic. Hence one popular name for goldenseal was
"poor man's ginseng."
- It has been estimated that more than 95% of the above-ground biomass of goldenseal is produced within the first month of the growing season.
- In 1997, the World Wildlife Fund included goldenseal as one of the
"10 most wanted"species in the world (10 of the most threatened species in demand for international trade).
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