Wildflower is published quarterly by the Wildflower Center. Its content is national in scope with articles about the conservation and use of native plants as well as news from the Wildflower Center. A subscription is provided to Wildflower Center members as a benefit of membership.
Gold Rush Adapted from an article by Katie Lewis - Fall 2006Initially motivated by an increase in demand nearly eight years ago, many organic farms in the Pacific Northwest began considering cultivation of goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) for its medicinal properties. Since then, as a result goldenseal beds have sprouted up across the region.
However disputed its efficacy within the healthcare community, goldenseal has over the last decade consistently ranked among the country…reg;s top-selling medicinal herbs. Marketed to boost the immune system and combat colds and the flu, combinations of echinacea and goldenseal now account for 13 percent of the botanical industry.
This popularity, however, carries a hefty ecological price tag. In recent decades, goldenseal has become one of several medicinal plant species that has begun to disappear from the wild. The casualties of urban expansion, logging and overharvesting, according to the World Wildlife Fund as many as 250 wild medicinal plants may now be threatened worldwide.
Clinical studies citing the effectiveness of other medicinal herbs like black cohosh, saw palmetto and echinacea have propelled these botanicals to the top of the market in recent years. Goldenseal…reg;s popularity of late presents a bit of an anomaly, however, since clinical studies evaluating the plant…reg;s medicinal capabilities have not been published in 60 years. Despite extensive historical claims, there is little scientific evidence that proves goldenseal to be effective for the treatment or prevention of any ailment.
“Typically, there is a direct correlation between the popularity of an herb and positive clinical trials,” explains Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of the American Botanical Council. “Unlike other popular herbs such as garlic and echinacea, there are no clinical trials driving media promotion of goldenseal.”
Digging For Gold
Although goldenseal grows well in the nutrient-rich, loamy soils of the <'xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = 'urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags' /><'xml:namespace prefix = st1 />Pacific Northwest, the herb requires a long-term commitment from the grower. Multi-year crops, like goldenseal, require a four- to five-year growth period before the first harvest. In addition to this unprofitable period, goldenseal requires a high initial investment from growers. To provide the 70 to 80 percent shade cover that goldenseal thrives beneath, many Northwest farms erect expensive shade cloths in the middle of otherwise unsheltered fields. Currently, all 10 acres of crop fields at Sego…reg;s farm are under shade cloths.<'xml:namespace prefix = o />
Harvesting goldenseal is a labor-intensive process that begins in mid-August and typically continues for about a month.
“We hand-select the largest plants every year and then hand cut the leaves,” explains Sego of his farm…reg;s harvesting process. “Then, we dig out the plants with three or more stems with hand pitch forks.” Using this system, Sego typically yields close to 500 pounds per acre.
The freshly harvested roots and root hairs are washed five times by hand and then in a wooden spin washer and sold in dry form to botanical distributors primarily in the Northwest, but as far away as Toronto and Israel at times. Eventually, the dry roots are compounded into salves, extracts, tinctures and pills that are sold in herbal and nutritional supply stores.