A member of the buttercup family, goldenseal bears deeply toothed leaves and red, raspberrylike berries. The plant’s common name refers to the golden marks on the rhizomes, thought to resemble the wax seals once used on envelopes.
Native Americans used the bright yellow roots as a dye and as a remedy for a wide range of conditions that included skin inflammations, digestive problems, and ailments of the eye, ear, lung, heart, and liver. Goldenseal quickly became a popular home remedy among European settlers, as well.
At one time the plant grew throughout the moist, rich woodlands of eastern North America, but goldenseal’s popularity as a medicinal led to the overharvesting of the wild plants; today this species is considered endangered. Goldenseal remains one of the top-selling botanical products sold by the health-food industry, and some commercial suppliers now cultivate it.
Common Names: Goldenseal, Orange Root, Yellow Root
Description: Perennial, 6 to 12 inches tall, with deeply divided, five-lobed leaves; oblong orange-red berries with two shiny black seeds inside; golden roots
Hardiness: To Zone 5
Parts Used: Rhizomes and roots
Range/Habitat: North America; moist woodlands, meadows, and open highlands
Goldenseal root contains the alkaloids berberine and hydrastine, which stimulate digestion, increase bile flow, and lower blood pressure. Believed to have antibacterial, antiseptic, and astringent properties due to the presence of berberine, the herb is used to treat diarrhea, respiratory infections, colds, eye infections, and (as a mouthwash) sore gums and throats. Commercially prepared goldenseal salves and ointments (sometimes blended with comfrey or plantain) are available for treating sores, cuts, and other skin irritations. While clinical studies have shown that the compound berberine could be beneficial for treating some infections, clinical studies have not been conducted using the whole plant extract.
Caution: Goldenseal should not be used during pregnancy or by very young children.
With mordants, the root produces permanent dyes ranging from pale yellow to orange. Mixed with indigo, it produces an attractive green.
How to grow it
Goldenseal thrives in rich, moist, well-drained soil in dappled shade. The genus name Hydrastis is Latin for “water,” referring to goldenseal’s affinity for a damp growing environment. Budded rhizomes (available from specialty suppliers) are easiest to grow. Plant them in soil enriched to a depth of 10 inches with compost, leaf mold, and sand. In winter, mulch with shredded leaves. Harvest the roots of established plants (at least 4 to 5 years old) in late fall.