The Future of Goldenseal
Hydrastis canadensis, better known as goldenseal, is a long-cherished and favorite antimicrobial among herbalists and integrative practitioners across the United States. The potent herb has a long history of use among Native Americans as a treatment for all kinds of complaints, from eyewashes to respiratory infections to skin eruptions.
Depending on the era and region, this botanical has been known by a variety of names, including yellow root, Indian paint, eye balm and jaundice root. While the market demand for goldenseal remains consistent, it has been on the endangered species list for nearly two decades and adulteration issues persist in the marketplace.
Goldenseal is local to eastern North America with the majority of wild-harvested materials coming from Kentucky and Tennessee. With an annual estimate of approximately 40 metric tons of goldenseal harvested each year, 75 percent comes from wild harvesting and only 25 percent from cultivation. It is not surprising to find goldenseal is in danger of becoming extinct in the wild.1
Maryland, Michigan and New York categorize the plant as “threatened, at risk of extinction in the wild sometime in the near future”. Connecticut, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey and Vermont list the plant as “endangered, at high risk of extinction in the wild”. And North Carolina and Tennessee list the plant as “endangered with special concern, at critically high risk of extinction in the wild.”
While adulteration of goldenseal has been documented since the 1890’s, adulteration concerns have resurfaced in the last three decades. With the strong demand for this botanical, the high comparative market value of goldenseal ($44-110/kg of dry root) and the increased destruction of the plant’s natural habitat in regions of the eastern United States, it is not surprising that economic adulteration has become an issue for this revered medicine. Common adulterants are botanicals that contain the beautiful yellow alkaloid berberine, one of the active medicinal constituents found in goldenseal, as well as some much less expensive botanicals that unscrupulous raw material suppliers try to pass off as goldenseal. Japanese goldthread (Coptis japonica), Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium) and barberry (Berberis spp.) are some of the established adulterants that contain berberine.
So how can you tell if you are getting the real McCoy or an imposter? Using a variety of sophisticated analytical methods (HPLC, HPTLC, TLC, CE-MS, etc.), the presence and quantification of specific alkaloids (canadine and hydrastine) serves to differentiate goldenseal from other botanicals. You want to make sure the botanical does not contain the analytes palmatine and coptisine, as these alkaloids are not found in goldenseal and are the markers used to identify adulterated materials and products.
If you are interested in staying abreast of adulteration issues in botanical medicines, check out the American Botanical Council’s newly launched Botanical Adulterant Bulletin, which served as a great resource for this thumbnail sketch on goldenseal.
Now that we know how to discern whether or not a product really contains goldenseal, let’s ask ourselves the hard question. Should we be utilizing a botanical that is on the endangered list and at a high risk of extinction in the wild? While it’s true that this is an amazing medicine, we have many options that could readily be used in its place to help our patients and loved ones. There is a biochemical symphony that takes place in the wild that can never be recaptured once it is lost. Goldenseal? Maybe not.
by Tina Beaudoin, ND
- Tims, M. (2016). Botanical Adulterants Bulletin on Adulteration of Hydrastis canadensis root and rhizome. American Botanical Council.