Goldenseal is an erect, native perennial forb, growing 6 to 20 inches high on hairy unbranched stems. Stems may be reddish near the base and are usually greenish in the upper parts. Hairs on the stem are downward pointing. The plant has a long medicinal history - notes bottom of page.
Leaves are of two types: One basal leaf that usually whithers away by flowering time and usually two stem leaves that are spaced apart at the upper part of the stem, with the upper, without a stalk and placed just under the inflorescence, while the lower leaf is stalked. Both types have a similar shape - widely heart shaped, divided into 5 main lobes, (basal leaf may have 9 lobes) each lobe with coarse ragged teeth and an indented palmate vein structure on the upper surface. The leaf margins and veins are particularly hairy on both upper and under surface. Leaves are smaller before flowering, enlarging after the flowering and losing most surface hair as they age.
The inflorescence is a solitary flower at the top of the flowering stem, just above the upper leaf. Not all plants are fertile each year, but a fertile plant can produce multiple stems.
The flower is small, up to 3/4 inch wide when fully open. There are 3 sepals which fall away when the flower opens into an open ball shape formed with 40 to 50+ exerted stamens whose white filaments are abruptly flattened near the apex where the yellow-green anthers are of oblong shape with obtuse tips. The central receptacle has 5 to 15 yellow-green pistils, each with a short 2-lipped style.
Seed: Flowers are fertilized by insects. The developing berry cluster resembles a raspberry, hence one of the common names - Ground Raspberry - green initially and by late July turning bright red, each berry of the cluster with a short beak and containing 1 or 2 shiny black ellipsoid shaped seeds that weigh about 2,600 to the ounce.
Habitat: Goldenseal grows from a rhizome and tough fibrous roots. The rhizome is yellow inside - hence many of alternate common names. It is short on young plants and grows about an inch per year. The rhizome may propagate vegetatively but the main mechanism of propagation is by seed dispersal. Goldenseal grows best in dappled spring sunlight before tree leaf-out with 47 to 80% shade the remainder of the season. Moisture requirements are moist to mesic in sandy-loam soils rich in leaf mold. It can be a long-lived plant when undisturbed. The plant has few pest or disease problems. Seeding is best done in a flat with sand and peat moss mixed into the soil. Established plants can be dug, then separate the stems and place in a planting bed for a year before transplanting to a permanent spot.
Names: The genus Hydrastis, which has the Greek root hydor, meaning 'water', was confusingly applied to this plant due to the leaf's somewhat resemblance to plants of the Hydrophyllum genus. The species name, canadensis, means 'of Canada', the type locale of the plant. The author name for the plant classification - 'L.' refers to Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), Swedish botanist and the developer of the binomial nomenclature of modern taxonomy. There is currently debate in the scientific circles as to whether Goldenseal should remain in the Ranunculaceae family or be assigned to its own family. Conclusion of this debate awaits a molecular study of several plant families. The common name of Goldenseal comes from the yellow scar, resembling an old letter seal, left on the rhizome by each years stem.
Comparisons: Other than the slight resemblance of the leaves to that of Virginia Waterleaf, Hydrophyllum, there are no other confusing species with such a red berry cluster and petal-less flowers.
Above: Goldenseal produces one flower per stem with only 2 stem leaves, the upper smaller and beneath the flower stalk. The leaves enlarge after flowering.
Below: The flower is without petals and the sepals have dropped away when the flower opens. The pistils have a two-lobed lip.
Below: In bud the 3 sepals are visible. The two stem leaves are 5-lobed with the upper leaf at the base of the short flower stalk. All parts are hairy.
Above: The leaf underside has prominent veins, which are depressed on the upper surface. Veins and leaf margins have long whitish hair. The rhizome of the root grows laterally with multiple stem shoots. The green fruit is a cluster of berries resembling the raspberry but with the beak of each pistil at the tip.
Below: The mature fruit is bright red and each segment contains one or two black seeds.
Goldenseal was introduced to the Garden in 1910 by Eloise Butler with plants obtained from Kelsey's Nursery on the east coast. She planted more in 1912 and 1914. Curator Martha Crone planted it in 1938 and planted seeds in 1945, '47. '48 and '53. Gardener Cary George added plants in 1993, '94 and '98. In Minnesota Goldenseal is rare, found only in 5 counties in the SE corner of the state. That area is the northwestern edge of the plants range in North America where it is found east of the Mississippi River to the east coast, excepting the gulf states and upper New England. In Canada it is found in Ontario where is now considered rare due to over-harvesting.
In Minnesota Goldenseal was listed on the state "endangered" list in 1984 for similar reasons. This is the only species of Hydrastis found in Minnesota or in North America which is the only native habitat. In 1760 it was brought to England by Phillip Miller (Scottish botanist, 1691-1771) and presumably it then got to Linnaeus. There was never any large scale attempt to grow it in England.
Lore and Medicinal Uses: The Goldenseal rhizome produces a drug, Hydrastine, that is of great value in modern medicine. In pioneer times it was learned from the Native Americans that they used the root for medicinal purposes and from the fresh roots yellow juice they painted their faces and dyed clothing. The powdered root made a laxative, a tonic, an astringent and a stimulant. The fine powder or a tincture in 1 ounce of water was used for inflamed eyes - hence the alternate common names of "eye-balm" and "eye-root". For many remedies it was mixed with other medicinal herbs. The root mixed with fat was an insect repellent. A salve was used for skin sores and for external wounds. It was also known that in large quantities it was an abortive, but could overstimulate the nervous system, leading to convulsion.
Around 1850 it entered commercial trade and by 1905 it was being harvested in such quantities, estimated over 200,000 pounds, that the U S Department of Agriculture issued a bulletin about it. It could be obtained for around 8 cents per pound. By the 1990s it became one of the top six best selling medicinal herbs in the U.S. It is incorporated into many drug products. By 2000 the price was over $110 per kg. The main constituents of the rhizome are three alkaloids, Berberine at 3.5 to 4%, which is the yellow coloring matter; Hydrastine, at 2 to 4%; and Canadine. Berberine creates some of the bitterness in the root, but is mostly inert. Hydrastine is the important constituent. Both powdered root and a fluid extract were official in both the British and U. S. Pharmacopoeias. In recent years the products of the roots have been used to treat AIDS, digestive disorders and other chronic diseases as the roots have antibiotic properties.
references - W2, 7, 12, 25, & 40.
References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"