Hydrastis canadensis Buttercup family
by Greg Tilford c.2010
Appearance: Goldenseal is a perennial which may grow to 12 inches in height. The main stem of the plant is typically forked to produce two nearly circular 2-6″ wide leaves, one of which is usually larger than the other. The leaves are deeply lobed, 5-7 times; with toothed margins. the plant may require three or more years of growth before it will bloom, then it produces a single, whitish-green flower that has no rays; only sepals that are arranged in a concentric cluster. In mid-summer, the flower will develop into a single, raspberry-like red fruit that contains 10-30 small seeds. Stems are hairy. The rhizomatous root is thick and woody, with numerous smaller rootlet branching away from the main root stalk. All parts of the root have deep goldenrod-yellow inner tissues.
Habitat & Range: The range and population of this North American native are rapidly diminishing. The original range of goldenseal once included most of the Eastern North America; from Minnesota and Vermont south… all the way into Georgia. Today, most remaining stands of wild goldenseal are isolated in the central and northern reaches of the Appalachians, and to a lesser extent, the Ozark Mountain range.
Cycle & Bloom Season: A long-lived perennial which blooms in early spring.
Parts Used: Primarily the root; to a lesser extent the leaves.
Actions: Antimicrobial;, anti-catarrhal;, tonic,; astringent, cholagogue, anti-parasitic;.
Affinities: Mucous membranes of the respiratory tract, lower urinary tract, gastrointestinal tract, mouth and eyes.
Preparation: Tincture, tea, or poultice.
Specific Uses: Like it’s neighbor, American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), wild goldenseal is vanishing because of greed, sensationalism, and misinformed use. The greatest misnomer about goldenseal is that it acts as an herbal antibiotic in the body, coursing its way through the body systems via the blood stream to attack any pathogenic microbes in its path. This is untrue… goldenseal does not act as an antibiotic— in fact, the antimicrobial alkaloids of this plant (namely berberine; and hydrastine only act to inhibit bacteria, fungi, and parasites, and protozoan bodies that they come in direct contact with in the mouth, gastrointestinal and urinary tracts. These infection-fighting compounds are not absorbed into the blood stream, they simply act as contact disinfectants. With this in mind, goldenseal can be used against a broad spectrum of pathogens, including Streptococcus sp., Staphylococcus sp., Shigella dysenteriae, Salmonella, and several others1.
As an anti-inflammatory, goldenseal is effective for ulcers and irritations of the mouth, upper respiratory tract, eyes, and to lesser avail, the digestive and urinary tracts. For conjunctivitis which is secondary to bacterial or fungal infection in dogs, cats, birds, ferrets, rodents, horses, or reptiles, a goldenseal eyewash will serve as a strong antimicrobial agent which also acts quickly to reduce inflammation and redness. To use goldenseal in this capacity, make a strong tea from the chopped dry root, then add 12-20 drops of the dark golden yellow fluid into one ounce of sterile saline— the stuff marketed for people with contact lenses. A few drops in each eye (or a fraction of a drop in small birds, rodents, and such) two or three times daily, will usually bring relief very quickly. Internally, we like to use goldenseal in conjunction with garlic for ridding our dogs and cats of tapeworms, and we have received good reports from veterinarians we work with who find this combination useful for treating giardiasis or Escherichia coli (E-coli) infections in dogs, cats, and larger animals. Studies of the active component, berberine, substantiate these claims2,3.
A poultice made from the powdered root can be applied directly to infections or ulcers in the mouth— results are often seen within hours of application.
Wild goldenseal is one of the most endangered wild medicinal plants in North America, and it is still being exploited by bad apples of the herb industry. Fortunately, goldenseal can be substituted (in most cases) with Oregon grape root (Berberis [Mahonia] aquifolium), a naturally abundant member of the Barberry family which also contains an impressive amount of the active constituent, berberine. The continued survival of wild goldenseal is totally dependent on human conscience and responsibility— if you think you need goldenseal, give Oregon grape a try first. Chances are, you will be pleased with the results. If you still see a need for goldenseal, spend the extra money to buy goldenseal roots or goldenseal preparations which have come from certified organic (cultivated) sources. If you use “wildcrafted” goldenseal, you will be contributing to the rapid demise of a great healing treasure that can never be replaced.
Availability: Herb retailers. PLEASE— ONLY BUY GOLDENSEAL WHICH IS FROM A CULTIVATED SOURCE!!!
Propagation & Harvest: If you have a piece of ground that will support goldenseal, then please grow some! The future success of this plant will likely be measured by how actively caring people are willing to become involved. The best place to plant goldenseal is under the shade of a dense, hardwood canopy of a north facing hillside. The plant requires deep, compost-rich, well drained soil with a pH level between 5.5 to 6.5. With the use of shade cloth and the right soil amendments, it can be propagated in the garden as well.
Goldenseal can be propagated from stratified seed or from rhizome; spaced four inches apart in rows that are twelve inches apart. Planting should occur in fall. Goldenseal requires at least four to five years (preferably seven) to reach maturity. For more detailed information, please contact one of the resources I have provided in the Appendix of this book.
Alternatives and Adjuncts: In many applications where an antimicrobial or anti-catarrhal is indicated, any number of plants which contain the yellow alkaloid berberine can be employed in place of goldenseal. Choices include Oregon grape; (Berberis species;), Twin leaf; (Jeffersonia diphylla;), or Yerba mansa ;(Anemopsis californica;). However, before employing any of these herbs, a fundamental question of holistic responsibility should be addressed in the minds of all earth-conscious herb users: By using a wildcrafted substitute for a over-harvested herb, am I benefiting the future of wild medicinal plants, or am I simply deferring my impact onto another species? The fact that Oregon grape is an abundant, wild substitute is beside the point of this question… humanity is very efficient at screwing up or depleting virtually anything on Earth, and when we elect to abandon one natural resource for another in absence of proactive, holistic thinking, we are only contributing to a continuum of human impact. With this in mind, we should elect to use wild substitutes only when cultivated goldenseal is not available. Coptis sinensis, a species of “goldthread” which is widely cultivated in China, may also serve as an excellent substitute for goldenseal. A small portion of goldenseal, added to echinacea, will serve as a direct-intervention “double-punch” for infections of the mouth, urinary tract, and gastrointestinal tract, while the echinacea does its job at boosting the immune system.
Cautions & Comments: Animal studies have shown that berberine calms the uterus, but in other studies it shows that it stimulates uterine contractions, so it is inadvisable to use goldenseal, Oregon grape, or other berberine-containing plant medicines in pregnant animals. Goldenseal lowers blood sugar, so don’t use it in animals that are hypoglycemic. Goldenseal also may alter the liver metabolism and may have the potential to be hypertensive. Long term, internal use of goldenseal may over stimulate the liver and trigger excessive production of bile— a situation that will likely result in vomiting. Cats are especially prone to this side effect. In light of this, goldenseal should not be used continuously, in excess of seven days without a break. For proper dose, duration of therapy, and to ascertain if internal use of goldenseal is indicated for your animal, consult a holistic veterinarian.
1. Pizzorno, JE, Murray, MT. “Hydrastis canadensis, Berberis aquifolium, and other berberine-containing plants.” In: Textbook of Natural Medicine. Seattle, WA: John Bastyr College Publications, 1985.
2. Gupte, S. “Use of berberine in treatment of giardiasis”, American Journal of Diseases of Childhood. 129, 866, 1975.
3. Preininger, V. “The pharmacology and toxicology of the Papaveracea alkaloids.” The Alkaloids, Vol. 15, Manske RHF, Holmes HL eds. New York: Academic Press 1975, p.239.