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Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis L.) is a woodland plant belonging to the family Ranunculaceae. The plant is also known as eyebalm, eyeroot, hydrastis, orangeroot, tumeric root, and yellowroot. Mainly found in the wild, goldenseal grows to a height of about 1 ft (30 cm). It has an erect, hairy stem, and produces small, greenish-white flowers that bloom in early spring, and later turn into clusters of red berries. The plant gets its common name from its thick yellow rhizome.

Native Americans used goldenseal as a multi-purpose medicinal plant. The Cherokees used it as a wash to treat skin diseases and sore eyes and mixed a powder made from the root with bear fat for use as an insect repellent. Other uses were as a diuretic, stimulant, and treatment for cancer. The Catawbas used the boiled root to treat jaundice, an ulcerated stomach, colds, and sore mouth; they also chewed the fresh or dried root to relieve an upset stomach. The Kickapoo used goldenseal as an infusion in water to treat eyes irritated by smoke caused by burning the prairie in the autumn. Some Native American tribes made use of the plant as a source of a natural yellow dye.

Many early European settlers turned to Native American remedies to treat their ailments. In the seventeenth century, colonists in Virginia used such native plants as ginseng (Panax pseudoginseng), tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum), sassafras (Sassafras albidum), snake-root (Echinacea angustifolio), Collinsonia (Collinsonia canadensis), Sanguinaria (Sanguinaria canadensis), and lobelia (Lobelia inflata) to treat medical problems.

Goldenseal grows in high, open woods, usually on hillsides or bluffs with good drainage. It is found in its native habitat from the north-east border of South Carolina to the lower half of New York, and east to northern Arkansas and the south-east corner of Wisconsin, as well as in Nova Scotia. Today it is only found in abundance in Ohio, Indiana, West Virginia, Kentucky, and parts of Illinois. Goldenseal has vanished from some of its historical locations, mostly because of habitat loss. However, it has been cultivated in other places.

The roots and rhizomes of goldenseal contain a number of isoquinoline alkaloids, including hydrastine, berberine, canadine, canadaline, and l—hydrastine. It is berberine that gives the rootstock its distinctive golden color.

The medical uses for goldenseal are quite numerous. It is able to treat a variety of infections from tonsillitis, gonorrhea, and typhoid fever, to hemorrhages, gum disease, and pelvic inflammatory disease. Traditional uses of the rhizome have been as an antiseptic, astringent, diuretic, laxative, antihemorrhaging agent, digestive aid, tonic, and deworming agent. Goldenseal has also been used as an anticancer agent. Goldenseal's effectiveness against sores and inflammations is presumably due to the antiseptic properties of berberine against bacteria and protozoa, and to berberine's antimalarial and fever-reducing properties. The alkaloids hydrastine and hydrastine hydrochloride have been reported to stop uterine bleeding and prevent infection, and canadine acts as a sedative and muscle relaxant.

Goldenseal stimulates the liver, kidneys, and lungs, and is often used to treat ulcers. It has excellent antimicrobial properties that treat inflammation and infections of respiratory mucous membranes, the digestive tract, and urinary tract. External applications of goldenseal can be used to treat impetigo, ringworm, conjunctivitis, and gum disease.

The use of goldenseal as a "herbal medicine" is not restricted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which does not regulate herbs. Consequently, goldenseal remains a popular medicinal herb among many practitioners of alternative medicine. However, some health professionals recommend not using goldenseal for medicinal purposes because of the plant's toxicity. If ingested as a fresh, raw plant, goldenseal can be very posionous. Improper preparations of goldenseal may cause serious side effects such as mouth and throat irritation, skin sensations including burning or tingling; paralysis; respiratory failure; and even death. Before using goldenseal, patients should consult with their health practitioner.

Randall Frost

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