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A Threatened Species in the Wild, this Herb Is Now Emerging as a Valuable Organically-Grown Medicine

As an herbalist, I am painfully aware of how important it is that the herbs I use and recommend are harvested and grown in an ecologically sound manner, both to ensure that they are available for future generations and out of respect for the other living beings with whom we share this amazing planet.

There are a number of ways that we can accomplish this. Firstly, we should try to use herbs that are certified organically grown as much as possible. This not only minimizes our impact on wild populations, but also on the environment as a whole by not supporting the toxic and ecologically unsustainable practices of commercial agricultural methods.

Secondly, we should primarily use herbs that are grown or wild harvested in North America. When we purchase herbs from other parts of the world we can never be sure how they were grown or harvested. Many countries do not have laws that adequately protect the environment or the rights of agricultural workers. Herbs are often grown by methods that expose the environment and workers to large quantities of toxic chemicals — often those that have been banned in North America.

In other cases the herbs are harvested in excess or in ways that are extremely destructive to local ecosystems. This is particularly a problem in tropical rainforests where huge tracts of forest are often destroyed in the process of wild-harvesting or growing herbs. In addition, herbs from most parts of the world must be irradiated when they are imported into Canada and may require treatment with toxic chemicals when they come from some regions, even if they were originally organically grown.

Thirdly, when we use wild harvested herbs, it is best to use those that are symbiotic with human development. Many of our most important medicinal herbs come from this category. They are species well-adapted to the kinds of changes that humans make to their local environment. These species tend to follow us around wherever we go. In our region, most of them are native to Europe and western Asia and have become naturalized here. They include herbs like burdock (Arctium spp.), common chickweed (Stellaria media), chicory (Cichorium intybus), coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara), common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), goldenrod (Solidago spp.), ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea), hawthorn (Crataegus spp.), motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca), common mullein (Verbascum thapsus), purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), quack grass (Elymus repens), Queen Ann’s lace (Daucus carota), red clover (Trifolium pratense), St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), wild lettuce (Lactuca spp.), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), yellow avens (Geum spp.), yellow dock (Rumex crispus) and many others. All of these herbs are very common in southern Ontario. Some of them are so common that they are classified as noxious weeds in many municipalities and it is virtually impossible to over-harvest them in most of the areas where they grow.

Finally, when it is necessary to use native or less common species that are wild harvested, it is important that we use herbs from sources practising ecologically sound harvesting methods. Although we can not always guarantee that companies are making honest claims, if the herbs are harvested in North America, it is much easier to verify the accuracy of their information.

Over the years I have managed to replace the majority of exotic herbs that I used in the past with herbs that can easily be grown or wild harvested here. It means that I have had to constantly change and update my materia medica — the group of medicinal plants that I routinely use in my own practice. In some cases it has become necessary to discontinue the use of some important herbs because of the risk that they might become threatened or endangered in the wild. A typical example of an herb in this category is goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis).

Goldenseal is a plant that was once very common in the deciduous woodlands of eastern North America. It is a Carolinian species that primarily grows south of the Great Lakes, but it was once common in the forests of southern Ontario. It is primarily the rhizomes of goldenseal that are used medicinally. Since it doesn’t produce a large taproot like many medicinal species, a fairly large amount must be harvested and dried to produce a kilogram of this herb.

Historically, Goldenseal was used by Native American tribes that lived in its natural range. European settlers began using it in the late 18th century, and by the late 19th and early 20th century it had become popular in North America and Europe as well. With the renaissance in herbalism that has occurred since the 1960s, it is still one of the most popular herbs in commerce.

Through the 1980s and ‘90s, most of the goldenseal rhizome on the market was still being wild harvested. As a result, this herb became threatened, endangered or extirpated from much of its original range due to the combined effects of habitat destruction and over-harvesting. In Ontario, goldenseal is a threatened species. It has been wiped out of all but the extreme southwestern part of the province. The situation is not much different in most of the states where it was once common.

I became aware of the declining status of wild goldenseal populations in the late ‘90s. Although I consider it to be a very valuable herb, at that time I eliminated its use from my practice and stopped teaching my students about its uses, except to use it as an example of the consequences of over-harvesting.

In the last five years the situation with goldenseal has changed significantly. Agricultural production of this herb has been rapidly increasing and much of it is being grown organically. As a result, less than half of the goldenseal on the market is now coming from wild harvested sources and this amount is steadily decreasing. Given current trends, I have begun to use this herb once more and have reintroduced it into my curriculum. Goldenseal is one of the most expensive herbs and the price alone will limit use. Nevertheless, it is very important that we only use the rhizome from organically grown sources.


Having dispelled some of the misconceptions about goldenseal, now let’s look at ways that it can be used effectively.

Goldenseal is an excellent herb for treatment of conditions of the epithelial tissues — the skin and mucus membranes. Externally it will reduce inflammation and speed up the healing of wounds, rashes, bites, stings and other irritations. It also reduces bleeding or running from wounds and sores. Taken internally goldenseal will help heal ulcers of the mouth and digestive tract. It is also one of my favourite herbs for the treatment of irritation and inflammation of the digestive tract including diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, colitis, diverticulitis and more.

Although goldenseal is not a good antiviral, it is an amazing antibacterial, antifungal and antiprotozoal herb. In addition to its healing properties, this is also effective for the treatment of many kinds of infections of the skin and mucus membranes. It is great for infected wounds, boils and other kinds of skin infections. The tea can be used as an eyewash for conjunctivitis (pinkeye), a condition that medical doctors often have difficulty treating. (Always filter it through a coffee filter to eliminate particles.) Used correctly, goldenseal will usually knock out pinkeye in a day or two. The tea can also be used as a douche for treatment of infections and irritations of the vagina and cervix.

Goldenseal is also one of my favourites for treatment of most kinds of non-viral infections of the mouth, throat and digestive tract. It is helpful for digestive yeast infections, many forms of food poisoning, dysentery, and it helps to reduce Helicobacter pylori, a common infectious organism sometimes associated with ulcers and other inflammatory conditions.

Goldenseal is most often used to treat infectious conditions of tissues to which it can be directly administered. As I’ve already mentioned, for treatment of these kinds of conditions it should not be combined with purple coneflower. Instead, combine it with other antimicrobial herbs. Goldenseal works well with many aromatic antimicrobials such as garlic bulb (Allium sativum), oregano herb (Origanum vulgare), thyme herb (Thymus vulgaris), cinnamon bark (Cinnamomum verum), clove buds (Syzygium aromaticum), and yellow avens root.

Goldenseal is also useful for the treatment of many non-viral systemic infections. Keep in mind that many of these infections are potentially life-threatening and you should not try to treat them without proper medical supervision. An exception is urinary tract infections. Here goldenseal is very effective for the infection itself, but it must be combined with other herbs that support the urinary system. Some excellent examples include goldenrod herb, Joe-Pye root (Eupatorium spp.), Queen Ann’s lace herb, dandelion leaves and flowers, and horseweed herb (Conyza canadensis).

Although much of the information on goldenseal focuses on its use in infectious conditions, it has many other important uses. It is a very detoxifying herb making it useful for treatment of chronic inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, acne, eczema and psoriasis. It is also recommended for excessive watery discharge from the nasal passages due to infections or allergies; it improves digestion; it is useful for many conditions of the stomach, liver and gallbladder; it can help reduce excessive menstrual bleeding or uterine hemorrhage; and it is helpful in the treatment of some forms of cancer of the mucus membranes, liver, pancreas and female reproductive system.

Although goldenseal is a very safe herb, there are some restrictions on its use. Goldenseal is a medium potency herb. In herbalism we tend to use the milder more tonic herbs as much as possible. We use medium potency herbs less often and high potency herbs rarely. Goldenseal is often used in the treatment of moderate to more severe infections of bacterial, fungal and protozoal origin. We have many examples of the overuse of antimicrobial drugs leading to the development of drug-resistant strains of micro-organisms. Although it is more difficult for micro-organisms to become resistant to the effects of herbs, it is still a possibility. It is therefore important that we don’t use goldenseal and other similar herbs indiscriminately.

Due to its potency, there is a mild risk of toxicity from goldenseal with excessive long-term use. It is therefore best to use it in formulations only, in the 20-25% range. It is also fairly astringent and using it in higher proportions or combining it with too many other strong astringents may result in gastrointestinal irritation.

Due to its potency and influence on the uterus, goldenseal is not recommended during pregnancy or lactation.

Goldenseal is effective taken as a tea, but it works best when used as a tincture. It is preferable to take it on an empty stomach, at least 15 minutes before and two hours after meals. It is also best to hold it your mouth for 20-30 seconds before swallowing. Some people may find this difficult because this herb is very bitter. The bitterness can be mitigated by combining it with better tasting herbs.

Goldenseal is a very effective and useful herb that we came very close to losing due to misuse and over-harvesting. In the story of goldenseal there is an important lesson for all of us: herbalists, consumers, retailers and manufacturers alike. If we want to ensure that we will continue to have access to herbs for the benefit of our health and well-being throughout our lifetime and for generations to come, it is important that we grow, harvest, manufacture, promote and use them in a responsible manner.

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  1. S
    September 22, 11:03 San

    Hi, I don’t know if you’ll read this or not, but I needed to know what herbs are best at eradicating intestinal bacterial pathogens. Any help is much appreciated.

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