Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Goldenseal roots © Eric Burkhart

Goldenseal prefers moist, shady habitats in light soils where its yellow roots grow as rhizomes just under the surface.
© Eric Burkhart

April 2010

Yellow root of the woodlands

Less well known than ginseng, goldenseal is another perennial favorite with a long history as an herbal curative.

Joe Henry

My interest in goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), or "yellow root" dates back 30 years when, as a five year old, I explored the hills of southern Indiana with my dad digging its roots and seeking another highly valuable plant, American ginseng. These were the first two plants I learned as a child. Gathering these plants was a family tradition and, like his father before him, my dad and all of his brothers would accompany my grandfather roaming the mountains of east Tennessee each fall searching for these coveted plants that provided much-needed income in the economically depressed area of Appalachia. For me, this pastime turned from an opportunity to make some extra cash into a passion for learning about rare plants and animals, and now a career as an ecologist.

Many years later I recalled my childhood connection with goldenseal while controlling garlic mustard with colleagues at a state natural area in Green County. In 2005, we discovered a small population of goldenseal on the site where it was previously undocumented.

Goldenseal can be found in much of the Northeast including 27 states and Ontario. In most of its range, goldenseal grows best in rich, mesic hardwood forests. In Wisconsin, goldenseal is found in the southern part of the state in a U-shaped distribution from Monroe County to Manitowoc County where it grows in southern upland forests that are dominated by red and white oaks, shagbark hickory, basswood and slippery elm. The ground layer in these forests may include jack-in-the-pulpit, large-flowered bellwort, interrupted fern, lady fern and hog peanut. Goldenseal is an erect perennial herb in the buttercup family with hairy stems, yellow rhizome-like roots and white flowers that bloom in May. The fruit is a small cluster of red berries that ripens in mid-July. It grows to heights of six to 20 inches and has wide-toothed leaves with five lobes.

Photo of goldenseal fruit © Lew Diehl
Goldenseal leaves produce single red fruits in July that look a bit like raspberries.
© Lew Diehl

Goldenseal is valued for medicinal purposes and has an interesting history. Many Native American tribes used it as a medicine and a coloring agent. According to Prof. Benjamin Smith Barton in his "Collections for an Essay Toward a Materia Medica of the United States" (1798), the Cherokee nation used it to treat cancer. In the 1800s, goldenseal was a popular treatment option for doctors who believed herbal remedies could help alleviate cancer and control swelling. Today, goldenseal is among the top-selling medicinal herbs in the United States. Herbalists consider it an antiseptic, anti-catarrhal and an anti-inflammatory that is used to treat a variety of ailments from gastritis to liver disease.

While there are many health benefits from using goldenseal, its conservation status is not as positive a story. Range-wide, goldenseal is in serious decline due to overharvesting, habitat destruction, forest fragmentation, land clearing and the spread of invasive species such as garlic mustard. Goldenseal is listed as endangered in six states, threatened in three states, and is of special concern in three states, including Wisconsin. Due to its steady decline and increasing scarcity, goldenseal was recently listed as a Species of Special Concern by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Commercial sale of cultivated goldenseal is more prevalent in Appalachia than Wisconsin, however commercial supplies are not sufficiently developed to take pressure off of the harvest of the wild roots.

So what's the future for goldenseal in Wisconsin? It might be found less frequently as impacts of global climate change become more pronounced across the landscape. While climate change brings uncertain consequences, there are steps we can take now to help secure goldenseal's place in Wisconsin. To start, land management practices in southern forests can be compatible with preserving and expanding goldenseal populations. Also report new sightings of this plant and, if the plant is harvested, do it conservatively. Scatter seeds from harvested plants to replant them. Never completely harvest entire patches of goldenseal and leave smaller patches untouched so they can spread. Be aware that harvesting goldenseal on state properties like wildlife or fisheries areas may require a permit from the property manager. We heartily recommend appreciating goldenseal for its simple beauty as an uncommon spring ephemeral and let that be your prize, choosing to see rather than sell the "yellow roots."

Joe Henry is DNR's endangered resources ecologist for northeastern Wisconsin based in Green Bay.