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Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis)

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by Steven Foster © 2011

Goldenseal's Future

Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) is one of the most popular herbs sold on the American market. But why is it so popular? What is it used for? And where is the science to back it up? Answers to those questions are as ambiguous as the scientific literature on the plant. One of the big questions facing the future of goldenseal is whether there is enough supply, especially of wild-harvested root, to meet the demand.

Western knowledge of goldenseal begins about 200 years ago. Benjamin Smith Barton's Essays Towards a Materia Medica of the United States (published in three parts from 1798 to 1804) is one of the first sources of information on goldenseal. In the first part of his Essays in 1798 he observed that the Cherokee used it as a folk cancer remedy, which is also one of the earliest observations of the occurrence and treatment of cancer among American Indian groups. An important historical use of goldenseal root is as an eye wash for various eye problems, such as conjunctivitis. In the third part of his Essays (1804), Barton notes use as a bitter tonic (in "spirituous infusion") and as a wash for eye inflammations in a cold water infusion. "The Hydrastis is a popular remedy in some parts of the United States, " he observed nearly two hundred years ago.

Use of goldenseal arises from American Indian usage. The Cherokee used the roots as a wash for local inflammations, a decoction for general debility, dyspepsia, and to improve appetite. The Iroquois used a decoction of the root for whooping cough, diarrhea, liver disease, fever, sour stomach, flatulence, pneumonia, and, with whiskey, for heart trouble.

By the late 1700s, it was popularly used as a bitter stomach digestive (to help stimulate digestion and improve appetite), to treat skin inflammations, and those of the eyes. It was also used for inflammation of the mucous membranes of the throat and digestive system. It's popularity as an "herbal antibiotic" has continued to the present day, despite the fact that there has been little scientific research on the plant. Those who know it by reputation, however, swear by its use.

Unfortunately, one aspect of goldenseal that has driven the market in recent years is the notion that goldenseal will somehow affect the outcome of urinalysis for drug testing. This practice is a part of American folk culture, evolving from a novel by pharmacist John Uri Lloyd. Stringtown on the Pike, the most popular of his eight novels, was published in 1900. In the plot goldenseal bitters are erroneously mistaken for strychnine in a chemical test by an "expert" chemical witness in a murder trial. The accused murderer is convicted on the testimony, though the stomach of the deceased did not contain strychnine at all, but goldenseal, from the victim's morning habit of drinking digestive bitters. As a result, goldenseal became a part of American folklore associated with chemical testing errors. It has been used on occasions in this century to an attempt to mask the use of morphine in race horses (without success). Because of the practice of ingesting goldenseal to affect the outcome of drug testing, some drug testing labs are now testing for presence of goldenseal in urinalysis. If this use of goldenseal subsided, it would return to a more rational place in herbal medicine as an antiinflammatory and antibiotic.

The Goldenseal Trade
Since herbs began to become popular again, from the 1970s onward, goldenseal has been among the most popular Native American herbs. It has been estimated that upwards of 250,000 pounds of goldenseal root is sold each year. Since herbs have made the jump from the health and natural food market to the mass market in the 1990s, goldenseal demand has increased dramatically. Most goldenseal is wild-harvested. Since demand has skyrocketed (and supplies dwindle) the price of goldenseal skyrockets too. On the wholesale level, in the early 1990s, goldenseal root could be purchased for as little as $8.00 to $11.00 a pound when purchasing large quantities. Last year it shot up to over $30.00 a pound. Now wholesale prices of goldenseal have topped $100.00 a pound.

Botanists know the plant as Hydrastis canadensis. It is a member of the buttercup family that occurs in rich woods in the eastern deciduous forest. Goldenseal occurs from Vermont to Minnesota, south to Georgia, Alabama, and Arkansas. As early as 1884, John Uri Lloyd and Curtis Gates Lloyd noted dramatic declines in wild populations, to an extent as a result of root harvest, but more so as the result of habitat loss through deforestation. While over-harvesting has been blamed for supply shortages, the Lloyd brothers paint a complex picture of economic and social reasons for periodic shortages providing arguments indicating that decrease in areas or populations is not necessarily accompanied by a decreased supply. They noted that historically, poorer classes of people collected the roots during times of economic hardship. Being a minor commodity, factors would arise that would consume the entire supply in one season, causing shortages and a rise in price (such as we see today). The following season, a glut in the market would occur, and prices would drop. Collectors, they note, then turn their attention to other substances or pursuits. The price then stabilizes, but stocks are exhausted, and then, as the Lloyds put it, "history repeats itself."

This same pattern actually occurred with Echinacea angustifolia wild-harvested roots in the 1996 season. Roots started out at a price of upwards of $30.00 per pound. More root was harvested then could be sold, and the price dropped to as low as $12.00 per pound.

It's a matter of supply and demand. Given the market scarcity of goldenseal coupled with high prices, some have said that goldenseal is becoming "endangered." Unfortunately, the word "endangered" which should be reserved for species in imminent danger of extinction, is thrown about as an ambiguous word applied to any plant for which there are conservation concerns. According to Chris Robbins, a biologist formerly with TRAFFIC North America, an arm of the World Wildlife Fund, the term endangered is over-used and inappropriately used in many contexts.

Robbins notes that for plant materials entering commercial trade, to determine its status of how it is surviving, especially if a wild-harvested species, you have to look at numerous variables. You have to look at the extent in international and domestic trade. You need a series of data on the volume in trade, along with distribution, status in cultivation, and in the wild, of course, how does the plant reproduce, and other ecological and biological factors that might have an impact on its capacity to survive.

The World Wildlife's Fund TRAFFIC North America is actively involved in monitoring and policing the United States activity in the international trade of plants under the provisions of an international treaty known as CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species). The U.S. is a signatory nation. CITES (signed by over 160 countries) is the international treaty which controls trade in natural objects with commercial value. Animal or plant parts in CITES Appendix 1, such as elephant ivory, are illegal in international trade. The international trade of American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is regulated under the provisions of CITES which regulates trade through permit requirements for imports, exports, and re-exports of listed species. American Ginseng is listed in CITES Appendix II, controlling and monitoring its trade "in order to avoid utilization incompatible with [its] survival." Harvest and commerce are regulated and restricted both jointly and separately by state agencies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the United States Department of Agriculture. In the case of plants like American ginseng, this creates a paper trail to help better determine trade statistics, and develop biological data on the plant.

WWF’s TRAFFIC North America formally petitioned the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in 1997 to propose goldenseal under the provisions of the CITES treaty as an “Appendix II” listing, after finding that over 20,000 lbs of goldenseal were exported between 1990 and June, 1996. The petition was passed which meant from September 18, 1997 on, goldenseal exports are regulated under the CITES treaty.

Goldenseal is not endangered. However, the large increase in demand, has highlighted the need for more information on the plant's distribution, biology, reproduction, and ultimately the need to develop commercially cultivated supplies of the herb to provide a growing domestic and international market.

References

  1. Barton, BS 1798 & 1804. Collections for An Essay Towards A Materia Medica of the United States. Reprint ed. 1900. Bulletin of the Lloyd Library, No. 1, Reproduction Series, No. 1.

  2. Foster, S. 1989. Goldenseal - Masking of Drug Tests From Fiction to Fallacy: an Historical Anomaly. HerbalGram 21:7, 35.

  3. Foster, S. 1996. Goldenseal Hydrastis canadensis. Botanical Series, No. 309. 2nd. ed. Austin, Tex.: American Botanical Council.

  4. Lloyd, J.U. and C.G. Lloyd. 1884-85. Drugs and Medicines of North America. 2 vols. Cincinnati: J.U. & C.G. Lloyd.

 

 
       
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