Goldenseal: The Latest and Greatest Herbal Cure

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After harvesting, goldenseal roots are washed and weighed.
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A crew harvests goldenseal root (Hydrastis canadensis).
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Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) has taken an interesting journey in the last decade. In the 1970s and ’80s it emerged as the herb of choice among “in-the-know” herb consumers for topical and internal use, perceived as a natural antibiotic. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, it emerged as an underground and unproven natural ploy to beat urinalysis for drug tests. The theory was that if you took goldenseal capsules, tincture, or tea the day before a drug test, the goldenseal in your system would interfere with the chemical detection of illicit drugs in your system. I heard more than one story of athletes complaining that steroids were still detected in their urine or truck drivers who tried the technique and were disgruntled when marijuana showed up in their tests. In addition, during the 1990s, echinacea/goldenseal combination products emerged as the best-selling herbal combination product in the American market. Then in 1994, the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act catapulted herb products into the mass market, and for a few short years between 1996 and 1998, demand for goldenseal skyrocketed. Even the demand in health-food stores increased as more consumers came to shop, looking for the latest and greatest herbal cure.

The new market demand for goldenseal created supply shortages at the wholesale level. To some well-meaning individuals and even companies, this supply shortage (sparked by increased demand, hence higher prices), along with observations of increased difficulty in obtaining the supply from the wild, translated into a slogan: “Save the Endangered Species–Goldenseal.” The former Frontier Herb Cooperative (now Frontier Natural Products Coop) of Norway, Iowa, produced bumper stickers and buttons with the slogan. With no information on the biology or economics of the plants, what in essence seemed to be a supply-and-demand problem translated into a conservation problem by association. Consumer awareness became heightened and plant biologists took notice.

To discover just how much goldenseal was being used, the American Herbal Products Association commissioned a survey to measure the status of cultivated and wildharvested goldenseal root for 1998. The survey, conducted by the Arthur Andersen consulting firm, surveyed companies known to be engaged in the whole trade or cultivation of goldenseal. The report represents the first modern study on the total annual harvest of goldenseal roots. Wildharvest of goldenseal for 1998 was just over 250,000 pounds of dried root. An additional 3 tons were produced in cultivation.

Since 1998, use of goldenseal has declined, though no new figures are available. However, the percentage of wildharvested versus cultivated material has changed. Upwards of 30 percent of the supply now comes from cultivated sources, whereas in 1998 only 2.4 percent came from cultivated supplies.

In the submission for the goldenseal listing for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), it was noted that the plant is designated as threatened in Canada, is endangered in six states in the United States (primarily at the edge of its natural range where it is inherently rare), and threatened in five. In none of the states in which it occurs naturally was it considered to be common, according to the report. However, it should be noted that goldenseal has only been abundant historically in four states–Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Indiana. By its very natural distribution it is therefore relatively non-abundant in twenty-three of the twenty-seven states in which it is known to occur. Declines in populations were observed in the late nineteenth century and such observations continued to accelerate, though no inventories were conducted to substantiate observations by a few individuals. This is the greatest problem with conservation of wild herb species–actually determining the exact status of the population in the wild. This includes a range-wide inventory of how many individuals or populations exist, the plant’s population biology, the dynamics of those populations, and even their reproductive biology. For goldenseal, this information did not exist except for a few obscure, dated scientific reports of limited scope. The research had simply not been conducted.

In response to the CITES listing of goldenseal, research on cultivation and wild populations of goldenseal has increased. One location in which the research occurs is Meigs County, Ohio, in the heart of goldenseal country. Research on wild populations at the United Plant Savers (UpS) sanctuary in Ohio has been ongoing for several years. At the neighboring National Center for Preservation of Medicinal Herbs (NCPMH), begun in 1998 by Frontier Natural Products Cooperative, goldenseal trials are entering their fifth year under the direction of Erica Renaud, research director at Frontier’s Organic Research Farm in Norway, Iowa.

According to Renaud, “Since 1998, twenty-eight on-farm research trials have been underway at the NCPMH. The on-farm research focuses on agronomic production models for the ‘critical to cultivate’ species to help develop effective models for bringing the plants under cultivation. Specifically, the research strategy is to evaluate the effects of fertility levels, shade levels, harvest dates, propagation techniques, mulches, and plant spacing on growth, yield, and medicinal quality of herbs such as goldenseal.

“Our first root weight harvest of the three-year-old goldenseal roots began in the fall of 2001. Goldenseal roots of the six different propagation methods and fertility levels will be evaluated for root weight yield and important chemical constituents such as hydrastine and berberine,” Renaud states.

I was in Meigs County, Ohio, in October 2001 and observed the harvest and weighing of hundreds of goldenseal roots in this phase of the research. Then-NCMPH manager Diane Don Carlos, her apprentices, volunteers from Rural Action, and Renaud worked tirelessly over a three-day period digging the roots, cleaning them, weighing them fresh, drying them, weighing them again, and meticulously recording the data. Next they took the roots to the lab for chemical testing. Much detailed work goes into producing information of use to growers. Initially, all of the roots planted in the dozens of experimental plots in the forest of Meigs County in the spring of 1998 were from wildcrafted sources. Since that time, NCMPH staff and volunteers have been monitoring the plantings and conducting experiments that will determine the effects of different mulching, shade, fertilizers, and disease observations on goldenseal and other woodland herbs currently in experiment plots at the center.

With a great deal of data collected, most of which has yet to be analyzed and published, look for the results to provide useful information for home herb gardeners and commercial growers alike.

To learn about more herbs beneficial for your health, click here.

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