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Hydrastis canadensis is the botanical name for goldenseal, a perennial herb native to the woodlands of the northeastern U.S. and parts of southeastern Canada. As a member of the Ranunculaceae family of flowering plants, this herb is a cousin to the common buttercup. Since each plant bears a single fruit in summer that resembles a raspberry, goldenseal is also known as ground raspberry. Other common names, such as yellow puccoon, orange root, and jaundice root, refer to the bright yellow rhizome, which is highly valued for its medicinal properties. Unfortunately, Hydrastis canadensis has been so overharvested in the wild for use as an herb remedy that it was declared an endangered species in the U.S. in 1991 and added to the Appendix II list of the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species in 1997.
Goldenseal was an important medicinal herb to the Native American tribes of the northeastern U.S and Ohio Valley region. The Cherokee, for example, considered the plant an appetite stimulant, which may explain why it was used as a cancer remedy as well. The Iroquois made decoctions from the root to treat diarrhea and whooping cough and, when combined with other plant roots, to make an earache remedy and an eye wash. Many of these same herbal remedies were adopted into the practice of eclectic medicine in the late 20th century and earned a place in the American Materia Medica.
Modern herbalists classify Hydrastis canadensis as an anti-inflammatory, immunomodulator, and antibiotic. These medicinal benefits are due to the presence of certain isoquinoline alkaloids, namely hydrastine, berberine, and canadine. Other pharmacological actions attributed to the essential oil and plant extracts of Hydrastis canadensis include astringent, haemostatic (blood clotting), laxative, and muscle stimulant properties. It should be noted, however, that goldenseal preparations may increase blood pressure and may not be suitable for individuals with a history of hypertension or heart disease. In addition, since Hydrastis canadensis may induce uterine contractions, its use during pregnancy should be avoided.
There is a curious myth associated with goldenseal’s reputed ability to mask illegal drug use in urine tests originating from a work of fiction. In 1890, John U. Lloyd, an eclectic pharmacist turned author, penned the murder mystery, "Stringtown on the Pike," which featured a victim who was in the habit of enjoying a daily tonic of goldenseal. Unfortunately for the accused, the physician examining the body of the deceased mistakenly declared that the stomach contents contained strychnine, evidence that drew a conviction of murder by morphine poisoning. The dramatic conclusion — and saving grace for the suspect — came with the revelation of a young female chemistry student, who discovered that hydrastine and morphine combine to produce characteristics similar to strychnine. An interesting twist to this 19th century lesson in pharmacology is the fact that the presence of hydrastine alone in urine samples is often considered “evidence” of drug use today.