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This perennial herb of the eastern US features deeply textured leaves, white flowers, and raspberry-like fruits. Yellow rhizomes are the inspiration for goldenseal’s colorful common names, such as turmeric root, orange root, yellow paint, yellow eye, yellow puccoon, and yellow root. Although capable of reproduction by seed after four to five years of growth, goldenseal reproduces mainly by the slow spread of rhizomes and thread-like runners that form small colonies 6 to 12 inches tall. Each plant has a hairy stem with either one or two distinctively wrinkled, palmated leaves that become larger, smoother, and darker green as they mature. Only the mature, two-leaved plants are capable of producing flowers and fruits. It takes up to five years for seedlings and three years for one-leaved plants to mature and produce flowers. The flowers are cross-pollinated by bees and flies, but they’re also capable of self-pollination. In the wild, goldenseal thrives in dappled spring sunlight and moist, rich soils of woodlands. Once the canopy fills in, the plant benefits from light to moderate shade and adequate airflow. It doesn’t do well in dry, deeply shaded soils, and it will lose its leaves and go dormant early during droughts. This probably won’t harm the plant, but root growth will be reduced. 

 

Goldenseal is easily recognized in spring when a single, white flower grows from a short stalk protruding from the base of the uppermost leaf. Like many species in the Buttercup family, the flowers lack petals. The goldenseal flower is composed of numerous stamens and a cluster of pistils that give an overall effect of a tiny, greenish-white sea anemone. In mid to late summer, an aggregate of tiny red berries topped with styles replaces the flower. Humans don’t eat the fruits, but birds and other wildlife reportedly consume them.

 

Goldenseal is widespread through eastern North America, from southern Canada to Georgia and west to Minnesota. The plant is most common in the Ohio River Valley, and its populations have been greatly reduced in many states due to overharvesting, urban sprawl, and deer browse. Goldenseal is one of the oldest documented medicinal plants of North American origin. For centuries, people have collected the rhizomes, which contain berberine and other alkaloids, to treat a variety of symptoms. When it comes to foraging in the wild, Japanese barberry is commonly suggested as an alternative to goldenseal. Not only does it contain berberine, but it solves two problems at once by removing an invasive plant and leaving goldenseal to multiply. A refuge for wild medicinal plants such as goldenseal sits in the Appalachian foothills of Ohio, where optimal soil conditions and unique topography created a prime location for locals to collect these plants. Visitors can still visit the United Plant Savers’ 360-acre Botanical Sanctuary to learn firsthand about the herbs and trees that make up the several different ecosystems.

 

Goldenseal requires little attention or maintenance. It benefits from a layer of leaves or bark chips to hold in moisture and provide winter protection. After four to five years, a colony of plants may become too crowded. In the fall, divide the roots and transplant with 1/2-inch of a rhizome that still has some attached roots and, ideally, a bud. Rhizomes may also be harvested for use in the fall.

 

Native habitats include rich woodlands, wooded bluffs, and areas along woodland paths and streams. Goldenseal is often found with a diverse assortment of wildflowers and deciduous trees. It’s ideal in woodland gardens and shady, moist areas of the landscape.

 

Plant Characteristics:

Most commonly grows 6-12” tall but can reach 18-24" in some sites.

 

Prefers dappled spring sunlight and light to moderate shade during summer. Doesn’t tolerate full sun or dry, deep shade.

 

Performs best in moist to medium, loamy soils. Tolerates occasional drought by going dormant early and reducing root growth; provide water, if possible. Tolerates spring flooding.

 

The flower is about ¾" wide, consisting of 3 sepals, about 40 stamens with yellow anthers, and around 10 green pistils. The blooming period is mid to late spring and lasts 2-3 weeks. Each tiny berry contains 1-2 shiny, black seeds.

 

A single, unbranched, hairy petiole bears basal or cauline (attached directly to stem) leaves about 8-10” wide with 5-9 lobes. All leaves are hairy, doubly toothed, and prominently veined.

 

Knotty, yellow rhizomes and fibrous roots produce clonal offsets.

 

Wildlife Value:

Pollinators include small and large bees and syrphid flies. Fruits are eaten by birds and small mammals. Deer may browse the foliage.

 

Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:

Native Americans used goldenseal for respiratory, immune system, inflammation, and gastrointestinal ailments.

 

Goldenseal is ranked as one of the leading herbal and food supplements and is thought to possess anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, and anti-yeast properties. It’s been used to treat a variety of issues, including gastrointestinal disorders, ulcers, constipation, skin and eye infections, and cancer.

 

An extract has been used in misguided attempts to mask illegal drugs during urine tests. The rhizome also produces a natural, yellow dye.

 

Warning: Consult an expert when considering using goldenseal medicinally. It should not be taken long term or in large doses, and it can decrease the effectiveness of many common medicines. Pregnant women and infants should avoid goldenseal.

Goldenseal, Hydrastis canadensis

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