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Hydrastis canadensis – Goldenseal

Categories:Native Plants Perennials

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Goldenseal, Hydrastis canadensis, is a native perennial under duress due to loss of habitat and illegal harvesting.

I’ve appreciated the colony of goldenseal photographed herein for years. I didn’t really think too deeply about it other than to miss getting a photo of the crimson berries each year. This year I got the shot and decided to look further into this herbaceous perennial native to the eastern United States and Canada. Was I in for an unpleasant surprise.

Millions of goldenseal plants are harvested without replacing each year. According to multiple sources, the number could be as high as 60 million plants per year. It is a staggering number. Hydrastis canadensis is now protected by CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species).

The CITES report is especially interesting because it notes a series of authors who have warned of the decline of goldenseal as far back as 1887. Loss of habitat due to development started the decline and goldenseal’s desirability as an herbal remedy threatens it further.

In the United States, goldenseal is considered imperiled and uncommon. Ontario, the only province in Canada where goldenseal is native, has declared it threatened. North Carolina has taken the lead in making all wild collection of Hydrastis canadensis illegal.

I could go on and on. There is ample research presented online regarding the threat to this native perennial. I have included resources below in ‘More Information’.

They go after goldenseal’s roots.

If the harvest was above ground, for example, picking berries, then the damage would not be so bad. To harvest goldenseal, one must destroy the entire plant. I would hope many of the people digging up goldenseal in the wild would be repelled by the idea of killing an elephant for its tusks, but there is a direct correlation.

Goldenseal in North America over time

Hydrastis canadensis has been used as a medicinal plant for centuries. Native Americans used goldenseal for a number of medicinal purposes. The Cherokee used goldenseal to treat skin diseases, sore eyes, and cancer. They mixed powder made from the roots with bear fat and slathered it on as an insect repellant. In the prairie ecosystems, the Kickapoo treated irritated eyes with a water and goldenseal eyewash. Catawba Native Americans boiled roots to treat ulcers, colds, mouth sores, and upset stomachs.

The Europeans came along and looked for guidance from Native Americans regarding plants that could be used in medicine. Benjamin Smith Barton was an American botanist and physician who published a number of works on various subjects, including archeology and linguistics. Barton’s essays Towards a Materia Medica in the United States are thought to the first written source regarding goldenseal.

The excerpted page below is from ‘Part First’, published in 1801. By the way, the Latin term ‘materia medica’ refers to the collected knowledge of substances used in medicine. Materia medica is the precursor to modern pharmacology.

Benjamin Smith Barton wrote about goldenseal in Native American medicine in 1801. Full book available online from archive.org

Goldenseal has been used to treat arrow wounds.

The people of Appalachia have used Hydrastis canadensis for various medicinal applications for decades. It’s been used to treat smallpox scarring, stomach irritation, and sore throats.

These days goldenseal is still in demand, perhaps more than ever. It doesn’t take long to find claims online about its yet to be proven ability to fight cancer. I found the following claims online: a cure for toe fungus, fighting pancreatic cancer, bladder infections, gonorrhea, malaria, pneumonia, any and all digestive conditions, ringworm, dandruff, eye infections and on and on. As Dr. Debra Rose Wilson and Elea Carey observe in Healthline article Goldenseal: The Cure for Everything? “…it might be easier to make a list of conditions goldenseal hasn’t been associated with helping.”

Studies have indicated that berberine found in Hydrastis canadensis might help lower cholesterol and other digestive issues. Goldenseal may also fight E. coli. Dr. Wilson and Ms. Carey make the point that if goldenseal has antibacterial qualities this could explain its use to treat infections and skin problems.

I have no opinion one way or another as to whether goldenseal is effective in medicine. What is clear and has been clear since at least the days of Benjamin Smith Barton is that goldenseal is in danger of going extinct if harvesting of wild plants is not drastically curtailed.

Goldenseal in the garden

It grows a foot or so tall and prefers shade. It can handle morning sun early in the day but afternoon shade is a must. Commonly found in areas with rich, well-drained soil, goldenseal’s water needs are average. Well-drained soil is preferred. Incorporate lots of leaf litter or compost into the soil when planting.

More information:
Winter hardiness zones: 3-8

IUCN Red List of Threatened Species – Hydrastis canadensis (Goldenseal, Yellow Root) Vulnerable
North Carolina State University – Commercial Goldenseal Cultivation
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources – Rare Species Guide
Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources – Recovery Strategy for Goldenseal
Science JRank – Traditional uses of Hydrastis
Frostburg University – An Appalachian Plant Monograph (Highly recommended) – Pengelly, Bennett, Spelman, Tims

Native Distribution:

Genus/speciesHydrastis canadensis
Common name(s)goldenseal, orangeroot, yellow puccoon, ground raspberry, yellow root, eye root, jaundice root, eyebalm, tumeric root
Of notenative perennial for woodland gardens – scarlet berries are inedible – likes rich soil, add lots of compost or leaf litter when planting
Fall colorinsignificant
Water requirementsaverage
Soil qualityrich, well-drained
Suggested use(s)native collections, naturalized, shade gardens, understory, woodlands
Hardiness zone(s)3a, 3b, 4a, 4b, 5a, 5b, 6a, 6b, 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b
Typeherbaceous perennial
Nativeyes
Invasiveno
Deciduous or evergreendeciduous
Flower colorwhite
Bloom periodearly spring
Exposureafternoon shade, full shade

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