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Goldenseal In World Trade: Pressures and Potentials.
Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis L., Ranunculaceae) ranks with ginseng as a North American plant having high medicinal and financial value, as well as extraordinary and escalating demand. Goldenseal grows nowhere else in the world, and even within North America its range is limited and shrinking. Like ginseng (Panax quinquefolius L., Araliaceae), goldenseal is a small woodland-floor plant that grows in moist shaded hardwood coves favored by companion medicinal species which may include black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa (L.) Nutt., Ranunculaceae), blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides (L.) Michaux, Berberidaceae), bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis L., Papaveraceae), mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum L., Berberidaceae), and false unicorn root (Chamaelirium luteum (L.) A. Gray, Liliaceae). Above ground, each goldenseal plant consists of only one fragile stem 6"-8" high with one or two leaves, each the size of a small human hand stretched out over the moist earth that supports them. Below ground a rhizome sprouts numerous thin rootlets which intertwine with companion plants to form clusters that may be inconspicuous or spread out in large patches.

This kind of growth strategy works well in undisturbed woodlands; but it turns to deadly disadvantage when people come on the scene, for even the most careful collector or trespasser will trample on something of value, with the added liability of compacting the decaying humus and leaf-litter upon which all the delicate woodland species depend. When large-scale collection is taking place for financial gain, the disturbance is usually so disastrous that populations of plants like goldenseal do not recover. This kind of collection, along with expansion of timber harvesting, agricultural expansion, road intrusion, urbanization, and recreational use has made it increasingly difficult to find even a single population of goldenseal in many forests where they were formerly abundant. For these reasons, goldenseal has been assigned a fragile ranking by the Network of Natural Heritage Programs. Commercial trade in goldenseal is regulated in seven out of 26 states with goldenseal. According to state government reports, all harvest from the wild is prohibited and the species is listed as "endangered" in North Carolina, Vermont, Connecticut, Georgia, Massachusetts, and Minnesota. Goldenseal is reported but unprotected, at this time, in Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Ohio, and West Virginia. It is on the "rare plants list" in Alabama; the "watch list" in Delaware, Virginia, and Indiana; considered "threatened" in Maryland, Tennessee, and New York; "fairly rare" in Oklahoma and Michigan; "historic" in New Jersey; "vulnerable" in Pennsylvania; and "of special concern" in Wisconsin. Although goldenseal had been used for centuries, as early as the 1800s there were reports that habitat destruction was severely impacting wild populations (Lloyd and Lloyd 1884-1885, in Foster 1991); for this reason, today's remaining goldenseal stands may exist only as remnant populations.

Hydrastis canadensis was first used by Native American peoples of many tribes, later adopted by immigrants to the North American continent, and its reputation then carded eastward back to Europe, Africa, and Asia. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations cites goldenseal as one of the best-selling herbs internationally. It is now recorded in the official pharmacopoeias of France, Britain, Germany and Italy, and is marketed in over 500 medicinal products worldwide, with Germany accounting for 57 percent and France for 30 percent of European-marketed phyto-therapeutic products (TRAFFIC-USA). A German database of phytopharmaceuticals reported 43 pharmaceutical companies selling 176 different remedies using goldenseal (Lange-Osten 1996). Goldenseal is a component in at least 300 homeopathic remedies produced in France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Spain and Australia. The headquarters of three large homeopathic companies (Boiron, Dolisos, Lehnin g) are located in France and export mother tinctures, dilutions, and finished products. However, the largest percentage of exported plant materials go to Milan, Italy, which has the world's largest extractor industry. From there, processed materials go on to many different countries, including re-import back into the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean.

Agros Associates estimates that the annual volume of goldenseal entering the United Kingdom is approximately 10 metric tons with an estimated value of US $1.55 million. At a minimum of 200 roots to the pound, that 10-ton import amount for the U.K. alone suggests a staggering annual harvest which is utterly unsustainable by wild-harvested supplies since even partial regeneration of disturbed populations takes decades, if it happens at all (Alan Smith). If the weight of roots exported to international markets between 1994-1995 is tallied using only data from USDA-issued phytosanitary certificates, over 6 million roots would have been traded in that one year. Since there has been no organized or reported monitoring of wild populations in North America in the past, there has been no way to quantify the extent of potential decimation. It is for these reasons that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the regulatory body charged with much of the responsibility for protecting the nation' s vital plant and wildlife resources, proposed the listing of goldenseal under Appendix II of CITES, the Convention in Trade in Endangered Species, a move which was formally approved at the biennial Meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP) held in Zimbabwe in July 1997. At that time there was concern, especially by the Europeans, that their supplies would be more difficult to secure and even more costly. However, recognizing the threat to the species as a whole, and therefore to its availability as a medicine, the Europeans did support the initiative which, while not prohibiting trade, will regulate ethical and sustainable supply in world trade. Roots, rhizomes and rootstocks, as well as "specimens recognizable as parts thereof" will now require CITES export permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the federal permitting agency. Value-added products such as tinctures, creams, capsules, and the like will remain unaffected.

The CITES listing went into effect on September 18, 1997, in both the United States and Canada. Anyone planning to export goldenseal from either of these countries, or to re-export it from anywhere else in the world, must now apply for an export permit from the Office of Management Authority of USFWS. Permits will be granted on the basis of whether the material was legally acquired (not in violation of any local, state, tribal, or federal law), and whether or not the collection is detrimental to the survival of the species. In the first year of implementation, a number of groups and individuals will be involved in planning for future sustainable use and conservation of goldenseal, including the U.S. Forest Service, state government agencies, NGOs, industry, and researchers. The CITES listing is one action, but full protection requires partnership and cooperation at all these levels, including involvement of affected states.

The listing of goldenseal under CITES is intended to serve as a useful tool and stimulus for industry, the healing community, and individual consumers by providing an opportunity to collaborate in structuring mechanisms for responsible protection and sustainable use. The foundation of these efforts is effective trade monitoring so that a baseline of information about collection can be built and augmented. This kind of information can lead to wise financial investments in developing sustainable cultivation practices, along with conservation and enhancement of the native germplasm base upon which cultivars depend. Clear parameters of responsible trade, enforced at the source of origin, will certainly encourage high-quality product development, effective consumer and grower education, and enhanced profitability as companies contribute to both. As Chris Robbins, Program Officer for TRAFFIC USA, points out, "While CITES is a global mechanism affording immediate protection to goldense al, it should not be seen as a permanent solution to the conservation and management of the species. CITES brings goldenseal's conservation status to the attention of users and will hopefully encourage remedial efforts." To this end, field researchers must be supported in their efforts to gain understanding of the biological dynamics and the collection effects, not only of goldenseal, but also of the valuable medicinal species with which it has co-evolved.

Since the market demand for goldenseal continues to increase worldwide, successful cultivation methods will be the key to future supplies. The herbal products industry has spearheaded this awareness with printed literature and electronic Web campaigns including the "Save the Goldenseal" campaign of Frontier Herbs. Others, such as Wilcox Natural Products, are supporting advanced research and contracting for cultivated botanicals. There are now cultivated enterprises in over a dozen states and Canada. Researchers such as Dr. Jeanine Davis, of North Carolina State University's Mountain Horticultural Crop Research and Extension Center in Fletcher, N.C., have been spear-heading this effort, thanks in large measure to industry support particularly from Nature's Way, Gaia, and QBI. In a series of cultivated-material trials, Dr. Davis has done ground-breaking work by determining that higher measurable (medicinal) alkaloid concentrations are produced in those plants which have been grow n slowly, without the benefit of extra chemical fertilizers. Although this means that material may take a year longer to be produced, it also means a higher potency yield. In companion research, the Center is looking at growing goldenseal in former ginseng beds to see if the ravaging effects of ginseng pathogens are thereby mitigated. If this proves to be true, then ginseng can be replanted in its former plots and goldenseal's therapeutic affects will extend to plant as well as human and veterinary medicine. With the cost of raw, bulk goldenseal on the market in excess of $125 per lb., its judicious cultivation may thereby yield multiple, ongoing profits.

In a companion project, the Wildlands Medicinal Plants Restoration Program of the Institute of Conservation & Culture is looking at biological and agricultural factors related to woodlands cultivation and restoration. This initiative, begun with support from Environmental Seed Producers (ESP) Inc., is developing an applied knowledge base for wildlands restoration, as well as for cultivars. Since so many medicinal plant species grow intermingled in undisturbed natural areas, the program is also working to develop medicinal plant sanctuary set-aside areas as vital germplasm reserves. All these kinds of cooperative efforts between public and private interests will help the USFWS to regulate international trade in such a way that the management of goldenseal becomes a national and international model, replicable for many other medicinal species whose existence may in the balance.


Proposal For The Inclusion of Hydrastis canadensis, Appendix II, CITES (Convention in Trade of Endangered Species). 1997. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Washington, DC; U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Personal communications. October 1996-October 1997; U.S. Forest Service. Personal communications. October 1996-October 1997; Davis, J. Personal communication. 1997. Fletcher, NC. August; Robbins, C. Personal communication. 1997 Washington, DC September;Smith, A. Personal communication. 1997. Mars Hill, N.C. August.

Article copyright American Botanical Council.


By Joy Elvey Bannerman