Sunday, May 20, 2012

Herb of the Week - Goldenseal

Goldenseal, Hydrastis canadensis
Goldenseal, Hydrastis canadensis
This week's herb is another medicinal plant native to our eastern woodlands that is currently blooming. While we are now in the bloom time of this plant, I am fairly certain that our readers have not seen this plant or its blooms.

This plant is a small, growing only 6-12" high and it has neither showy blooms or leaves. But more than its unassuming appearance, this plant has become increasingly rare in its native range. While habitat loss has effected all native plant populations, this plant's disappearance has been largely due to the overharvesting of wild plants for the herb trade. This plant is one of the most widely used herbs in America, second only to wild American ginseng, Panax quinquefolius. [Source: Planting the Future by Rosemary Gladstar]

Goldenseal was first used medicinally by the Native peoples of North America such as the Cherokee, Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), and Micmac where it was used for a wide range of remedies including those for diarrhea, inflammations, "sour stomach," fevers, liver complaints, and cancer. [Source: Native American Ethnobotany by Daniel Moerman] Later on the Eclectic medicine practitioners of the 1800's adopted goldenseal into their pharmacopeia as well. See King's American Dispensatory for an example of how goldenseal was used by this school of herbalism. Modern herbalists use goldenseal for a number of reasons but one of the chief reasons is for its antibacterial properties.

According to a 20-year, 16 organization study report, 34,000 plant species -- 12% of the plants worldwide and 29% of the plants in the US -- have become so rare that they could easily disappear. [Source: Planting the Future] Some of our most loved native medicinal plants clearly make that list. The United Plant Savers (UpS) is a non-profit organization dedicated to conservation of native medicinal plants. UpS maintains a list of plants that are most at-risk of vanishing completely called the "At-Risk" List. Goldenseal is on that list and so the UpS recommends that you use:
  • Alternatives to goldenseal such as barberry, cultivated oregon grape, cultivated yerba mansa, and other cultivated Berberis species.
  • Use only cultivated goldenseal 
I urge you , whether you are an herbalist or just a user of herbs, to make conscious choices about all the herbs you use. If there are alternatives to at-risk plants such as goldenseal, make every effort to use them. Or if you have the right conditions, you can add such plants to your own woodland areas and grow your own.  I currently have four goldenseal plants in my own woodland garden. They are not very fussy or difficult to grow if you have a woodland area in full-shade. Outside of a plant killed by rodents digging it up during the winter, I've never lost a plant. You may buy your goldenseal plants from a number of sources - my favorite is Prairie Moon Nursery.