Capsules: Hydrastis canadensis

Newsbreaks in herb research: Trade controls on goldenseal.


Goldenseal is being monitored to protect the plant.

Photography by Steven Foster

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Trade controls imposed for goldenseal 

U.S. government officials are monitoring goldenseal, one of this country’s top-selling herbal remedies, to help protect the plant. The trade controls are the result of goldenseal’s recent listing on an international treaty known as CITES, or the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. The treaty requires that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service monitor and limit goldenseal trade, and the effort began in September.

While some welcomed the news, ­others wondered whether the listing could effectively protect goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), whose roots have been used for centuries to treat mucous membrane infections.

Steven Foster, an Herbs for Health ­Editorial Advisory Board member and a reviewer of the CITES treaty, said he was skeptical about whether the listing would be effective except to raise ­awareness about the pressure that consumption puts on wild plants. The CITES listing means that only unprocessed goldenseal, including roots, rhizomes, rootstocks, and bulk powder, will be monitored, but finished or processed forms of it won’t be. Moreover, Foster said, the treaty is international in scope, but most goldenseal isn’t exported. Goldenseal, which grows only in the United States and a small area in Can­ada, is primarily consumed domestically.

The CITES listing for goldenseal was prompted by TRAFFIC USA, the trade monitoring arm of the World Wildlife Fund and the World Conservation Union, according to Christopher Robbins of TRAFFIC USA. The group has found that wild goldenseal populations may be declining because of myths about what the herb can do, Robbins said.

“It got a reputation as helpful to mask urine testing,” Robbins said. “It is not in fact effective for this,” but by some estimates, about half of the goldenseal population is being used by those who fear detection in urine screening for drug use, he said.

Goldenseal needs three to five years of growth before it’s ready for harvesting, so it takes at least that long to replenish supplies, a lag time that further increases the pressure on wild populations, Robbins said.

The Nature Conservancy reports that seventeen of twenty-seven American states with native stands of goldenseal consider the plant cri­tically imperiled, im­periled, or uncommon. Members of United Plant Savers, a non­profit organization focusing on the preservation of medicinal plants, estimate that as many as 60 million goldenseal plants are harvested from the wild each year.

Foster said that in 1996, goldenseal was selling for all-time high prices—as much as $70 per pound in wholesale ­catalogs—because of supply shortages. The market most likely will self-correct, he said.

“The supply shortage has stimu­lated a lot of startup cultivation,” Foster said. “I think some of the response has been reactionary based on perceived shortages, which was translated into ‘goldenseal is endangered’. Demand outstripped supply and the price shot up—in fact, what you had was a market shortage. Now, there’s at least a mechanism to gather information—one of the starting points for developing a sustainable harvest.”

CITES controls trade in natural ­objects with commercial value and is signed by more than 160 countries, including the United States. Animal or plant parts in CITES Appendix I, such as elephant ivory, are illegal in inter­national trade. Goldenseal is listed in Appendix II, which identifies species that are controlled and monitored “in order to avoid utilization incompatible with their survival.”