Chapter 18. Golden Seal History, Etc.

Botanical name: 

The increasing use of Golden Seal in medicine has resulted in a wide demand for information about the plant, its identification, geographical distribution, the conditions under which it grows, methods of collecting and preparing the rhizomes, relations of supply and demand, and the possibilities of its cultivation. This paper with the exception of the part relating to cultivation wa s prepared (under the direction of Dr. Rodney H. True, Physiologist in Charge of Drug and Medicinal Plant Investigations) by Miss Alice Hinckel, Assistant in Drug and Medicinal Plant Investigations; and Mr. G. Fred Klugh, Scientific Assistant in the same office, in charge of Cultural Experiments in the Testing Gardens, furnished the part treating of the cultivation of this plant. In the preparation of this paper, which was undertaken to meet the demand for information relative to Golden Seal, now fast disappearing from our forests, many facts have been obtained from Lloyd's Drugs and Medicines of North America.

LYSTER H. DEWEY, Acting Botanist.
WASHINGTON, D. C., Sept. 7, 1904.


As in the case of many other native medicinal plants, the early settlers learned of the virtues of Golden Seal thru the American Indians, who used the root as a medicine and the yellow juice as a stain for their faces and a dye for their clothing.

The Indians regarded Golden Seal as a specific for sore and inflamed eyes and it was a very popular remedy with pioneers of Ohio and Kentucky for this affection, as also for sore mouth, the root being chewed for the relief of the last named trouble.

Barton in his "Collection for an Essay towards a Materia Medica of the United States," 1804, speaks of the use of a spiritual infusion of the root of Golden Seal as a tonic bitters in the western part of Pennsylvania and the employment of an infusion of the root in cold water as a wash for inflammation of the eyes.

According to Dr. C. S. Rafinesque, in his Medical Flora in 1829, the Indians also employed the juice or infusion for many "external complaints, as a topic tonic" and that "some Indians employ it as a diuretic stimulant and escharotic, using the powder for blistering and the infusion for the dropsy."

He states further that "internally it is used as a bitter tonic, in infusion or tincture, in disorders of the stomach, the liver," etc.

It was not until the demand was created for Golden Seal by the eclectic school of practitioners, about 1747 (actually 1847), that it became an article of commerce, and in 1860 the root was made official in the Pharmacopoeia of the United States, which place it has held to the present time.

Habitat and Range

Golden Seal occurs in patches in high open woods where there is plenty of leaf mold, and usually on hillsides or bluffs affording nature drainage, but it is not found in very moist or swampy situations, in prairie land, or in sterile soil. It is native from southern New York to Minnesota and western Ontario, south to Georgia and Missouri, ascending to an altitude of 2,500 feet in Virginia. It is now becoming scarce thruout its range. Not all of this region, however, produced Golden Seal in. abundance. Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and West Virginia have been the greatest Golden Seal producing states, while in some localities in southern Illinois, southern Missouri, northern Arkansas, and central and western Tennessee the plant, tho common, could not be said to be sufficiently plentiful to furnish any large amount of the root. In other portions of its range it is sparingly distributed.

Common Names.

Many common names have been applied to this plant in different localities, most of them bearing some reference to the characteristic yellow color of the root, such as yellow root, yellow puccoon, orange-root, yellow paint, yellow Indian paint, golden root, Indian dye, curcuma, wild curcuma, wild turmeric, Indian turmeric, jaundice root and yellow eye; other names are eyebalm, eye-root and ground raspberry. Yellow root, a popular name for it, is misleading, as it has been applied to other plants also, namely, to gold thread, false bittersweet, twinleaf and the yellow-wood. The name Golden Seal, derived from its yellow color and seal-like scars on the root, has been, however, generally adopted.

Description of the Plant.

It is a perennial plant and the thick yellow rootstock sends up an erect, hairy stem about a foot in height, around the base of which are two or three yellowish scales. The stems, as they emerge from the ground, are bent over, the tops still remaining underground, and sometimes the stems show some distance above the surface before the tops are brought out from the soil. The yellow color of the roots and scales extends partly up the stem so far as it is covered by soil, while the portion of the stem above the ground has a purplish color. Golden seal has only two leaves (rarely three), the stem bearing these seeming to fork at the top, one branch supporting a large leaf and the other a smaller one and a flower. Occasionally there is a third leaf, much smaller than the other two and stemless.

The leaves are prominently veined on the lower surface, and are palmately 5 to 9 lobed, the lobes broad, acute, sharply and unequally toothed. The leaves are only partially developed at flowering time and are very much wrinkled, but they continue to expand until they are from 6 to 8 inches in diameter, becoming thinner in texture and smoother. The upper leaf subtends or encloses the flower bud.

Early in spring, about April or May, the flower appears, but few ever see it as it lasts only five or six days. It is greenish-white, less than half an inch in diameter, and has no petals, but instead three small petal-like sepals, which fall away as soon as the flower expands, leaving only the stamens-as many as 40 or 50—in the center of which are about a dozen pistils, which finally develop into a round, fleshy, berry-like head. The fruit ripens in July or August, turning a bright red and resembling a large raspberry, whence the common name ground raspberry, is derived. Each fruit contains from 10 to 20 small, black, shining, hard seeds.

If the season has been moist, the plant sometimes persists to the beginning of winter, but if it has been a dry season it dies soon after the fruit is ripe, so that by the end of September no trace of the plant remains above the ground. In a patch of Golden Seal there are always many sterile stems, simple and erect, bearing a solitary leaf at the apex but no flower.

Mr. Homer Bowers, of Montgomery county, Ind., who propagated Golden Seal from the seed for the purpose of studying its germination and growth, states that the plant grown from naturally sown seed often escapes observation during the first year of its existence owing to the fact that in this entire period nothing but two round seed leaves are produced and at this stage the plant does not look materially different from other young seedlings. During its second year from seed one basal leaf is sent up, followed in the third year by another smaller leaf and the flower.

Description of the Rhizome, or Rootstock.

The rhizome (rootstock) and rootlets of Golden Seal, or hydrastis, as it is also known in the drug trade, are the parts employed in medicine. The full-grown rhizome, when fresh, is of a bright yellow color, both internally and externally, about 1 ½ to 2 ½ inches in length, and from one-fourth to three-fourths of an inch in thickness. Fibrous yellow rootlets are produced from the sides of the rhizome. The fresh rhizome contains a large amount of yellow juice, and gives off a rank, nauseating odor. When dry the rhizome measures from one to two inches in length and from one-eighth to one-third of an inch in diameter.

It is crooked, knotty, wrinkled, of a dull brown color outside, and breaks with a clean, short, resinous fracture, showing a lemon-yellow color if the root is not old. If the dried root is kept for a long time it will be greenish-yellow or brown internally, and becomes inferior in quality. On the upper surface of the rhizome are several depressions, left by former annual stems, which resemble the imprint of a seal; hence the name Golden Seal.

The fibrous rootlets become very wiry and brittle in drying, break off readily and leaving only small protuberances, so that the root as found in commerce is sometimes almost bare. The dried rhizome has also a peculiar, somewhat narcotic, disagreeable odor, but not so pronounced as in the fresh material; an exceedingly bitter taste; and a persistent acridity which causes an abundant flow of saliva when the rhizome is chewed.

Collection and Preparation of the Root.

The root should be collected in autumn after the plants have matured. Spring-dug root shrinks far more in drying and always commands a lower price than the fall-dug root. After the roots are removed from the earth they should be carefully freed from soil and all foreign particles. They should then be sorted and small, undeveloped roots and broken pieces may be laid aside for replanting. After the roots have been cleaned and sorted they are ready to be dried or cured.

Great care and judgment are necessary in drying the roots. It is absolutely necessary that they should be perfectly dry before packing and storing, as the presence of moisture induces the development of molds and mildews, and of course renders them worthless. The roots are dried by the exposure to the air, being spread out in thin layers on drying frames or upon a large, clean, dry floor. They should be turned several times during the day, repeating this day after day until the roots are thoroughly dried. If dried out of doors they should be placed under cover upon indication of rain and at night so that they may not be injured by dew. After the roots are thoroughly dried they may be packed as tightly as possible in dry sacks or barrels and they are then ready for shipment.

Diminution of Supply.

Altho, perhaps, in some secluded localities Golden Seal may still be found rather abundantly, the supply is rapidly diminishing and there is a growing scarcity of the plant thruout its range. With the advance of civilization and increase in population came a growing demand for many of our native medicinal plants and a corresponding decrease in the sources of supply. As the rich forest lands of the Ohio valley and elsewhere were required for the needs of the early settlers they were cleared of timber and cultivated, and the Golden Seal, deprived of the shelter and protection necessary to its existence, gradually disappeared, as it will not thrive on land that is cultivated.

Where it was not destroyed in this manner the root diggers, diligently plying their vocation, did their share toward exterminating this useful little plant, which they collected regardless of the season, either before the plants had made much growth in the spring or before the seeds had matured and been disseminated, thus destroying all means of propagation. The demand for the root appears to be increasing, and the time seems to be not far distant when this plant will have become practically exterminated, so far as the drug supply is concerned.

The cultivation of golden seal seems now to have become a necessity in order to meet the demand and save the plant from extinction. Prior to 1900 there seemed to be no one, so far as the Department of Agriculture could ascertain, who had ever attempted the cultivation of golden seal for the market. From that time on, many inquiries were directed to the Department by persons who were quick to note the upward tendency of prices for golden seal and there are now several growers in different parts of the country who have undertaken the cultivation of golden seal on a commercial scale.


The United States Department of Agriculture has been carrying on experiments in the cultivation of Golden Seal on a small scale at Washington, D. C., since the spring of 1899, in the hope that methods might be worked out according to which this valuable wild drug plant could be grown on a commercial scale. In these experiments the aim has been to imitate the natural conditions of growth as closely as possible. The results that have thus far been obtained, while not as complete in some respects as would be desirable, seem to justify the conclusion that Golden Seal can be successfully cultivated. The methods of operation described apply to the conditions at Washington, and the treatment may need to be somewhat modified under other conditions of soil and climate.

Necessary Soil Conditions.

The soil conditions should imitate as closely as possible those seen in thrifty deciduous forest. The soil should contain an ample supply of humus, well worked into the ground, to secure the lightness and moisture-retaining property of forest soils. The best form of humus is probably leaf mold, but good results may be obtained by mulching in the autumn or early winter with leaves, straw, stable manure, or similar materials.

After the soil has been prepared and planted, it is well to add a mulch in the fall as a partial protection to the roots during the winter, and the decay of this material adds to the value of the soil by the time the plants appear in the spring. The forest conditions are thus imitated by the annual addition of vegetable matter to the soil, which by its gradual decay accumulates an increasing depth of a soil rich in materials adapted to the feeding of the plants and to the preservation of proper physical conditions.

The growth of the weeds is also hindered to a considerable extent. If sufficient attention is given to the presence of this mulch, the nature of the underlying soil is of less importance than otherwise. In the case of clay the thorough incorporation of a large amount of decayed vegetable matter tends to give lightness to the otherwise heavy soil, facilitating aeration and drainage. Since the roots of the Golden Seal do not grow well in a wet soil, thorough drainage is necessary. A lighter, sandy soil is improved by the addition of humus, since its capacity to hold moisture is thereby increased and the degree of fertility is improved.

The looser the soil, the easier it is to remove the roots in digging without breaking or injuring them. Before planting, the soil should be thoroughly prepared to a depth of at least 6 or 8 inches, so as to secure good aeration and drainage. The good tilth thus secured will be in a degree preserved by the continued addition of the mulch. A further advantage of a careful preparation is seen in a decrease in the amount of cultivation required later.

Artificial Shade.

Since the Golden Seal grows naturally in the woods, it must be protected from the full light of the sun by artificial shade. That used in connection with the experiments of the Department was made of ordinary pine plastering lath, nailed to a suitable frame elevated on posts. The posts were of cedar 81 feet long, set 21 feet in the ground in rows 11 feet apart, and 16 feet distance from each other in the rows. Supports 2 by 4 inches were set on cedar blocks 2 feet long -sunk below the soil surface in the middle of the 16-foot spaces. Pine pieces 2 by 4 inches were nailed edgewise to the tops of the posts and supports. The posts were notched to receive the 2 by 4-inch sticks. Pieces 2 by 4 inches were nailed across these at intervals of 4 feet. The laths were nailed to these, leaving spaces about an inch wide.

This shade has been found to be satisfactory, as it is high enough above the ground to allow such work as is necessary in preparing and cultivating the land. If the lathing is extended 2 or 3 feet beyond the posts on the sunny sides, injury from the sun's rays at the edges of the area will be prevented. The sides may be protected by portable board walls about 2 feet high set around the edges. Protection from injury by winds when the tops are large may be thus secured. Too much dampness should be guarded against in the use of the board sides, since conditions might be developed favorable to the damping off fungus and to aphides during the hot, rainy periods.

Trees may be used for shade, but this is in some ways to be regarded as unsatisfactory. When the shade produced is of the right density, the use of the moisture and raw food materials of the soil by the trees is an undesirable feature.

Attention Required.

The cultivation of Golden Seat is simple. Having secured a deep, loose soil, rich in humus, renewed annually by the application of a new mulch, the removal of weeds is the chief care. The soil, if properly prepared, will tend to maintain itself in good condition. The manner of treatment is very similar to that required by Ginseng, which is also a plant of moist woods. If the ground is thoroughly prepared, beds are not absolutely necessary. The plants may be grown in rows 1 foot apart and 6 inches apart in the rows. Beds may be thought by some to be more convenient, enabling the grower to remove the weeds and collect the seed more readily. If beds are used, they may be made from 4 to 8 feet wide, running the entire length of the shade, with walks from 18 inches to 2 feet wide between. Boards 6 or 8 inches wide are set up around the sides of the beds, being held in place by stakes driven on each side of the board in the center and at the ends. These beds are filled with prepared soil, and the plants are set 8 inches apart each way.

Methods of Propagation.

There are three possible ways of propagating the plant: (1) by seed; (2) by division of the rhizomes; (3) by means of small plants formed on the stronger fibrous roots. Thus far no success has been attained in growing Golden Seal from the seed. The second and third methods have given better results.

Experiments with Seeds.

Seeds just after ripening were planted in sandy soil mixed with well rotted stable manure and mulched lightly with manure. Other lots were kept over winter in a dry condition and planted in the spring in potting soil in a greenhouse. No seedlings have appeared, but a long rest period may be demanded and the seed may yet germinate.

Experiments with Divided Rhizomes.

In the spring of 1902, 40 plants were secured and planted under a shade of temporary character, but the season was too far advanced to permit of much growth during that year. In 1903, proper shade was supplied, all other conditions were better, and the plants made a good growth. The crop was dug about the middle of November 1903; the roots were weighed and divided. They were again planted and in May, 1904, there were found to be 150 strong plants and a few smaller ones as a result of this division, an increase of 275 per cent.

This method of propagation seems to be the most important and the other two of second importance. The processes are simple and no skill is needed. The plant dies down in late summer and the stem decays, leaving a scar in its place on the rhizome. Two or more buds are formed on the sides of the rhizome and these accumulate energy for growth the following spring. If the root is cut in as many pieces as there are buds, giving each plant a portion of the rhizome, some fibrous roots, and one or more buds, the number of the plants can be doubled. The roots are planted and mulched and the process is complete. The rains pack the soil around the roots and they are ready to grow when spring comes. The process may be repeated every year and the number of roots increased indefinitely.

The stronger fibrous roots of the larger plants dug in the autumn of 1903 were formed. from a few inches to a foot from the rhizome. Some were about half an inch long, but the majority of them were smaller. The larger ones need no special treatment and may be planted with the main crop. The smaller ones should be planted in boxes or beds of well prepared soil, at a distance of about 3 inches apart, mulched with a thin coating of leaf mold or similar material, and grown in shade until large enough to transplant to the shelter with the larger plants. They will probably require at least three years to reach their full development.

If they could be left undisturbed in the beds where they are formed they would receive nourishment from the older rhizomes and perhaps grow faster, but it is probably best to divide the older roots every year where propagation alone is desired, planting the smaller roots and the plants made by division of the rhizomes. The larger roots are marketed to more advantage than the smaller ones, so it is best to have the surplus consist of the larger roots. The frequent working of the soil allowed by this treatment will keep it in better condition than if left undisturbed for a longer period.

Yield of Roots.

The yield from the small plant grown by the Department was 4 pounds of green roots to an eighth of a square rod of soil, or 5,120 pounds per acre. This, when dried, would give about 1,500 pounds of marketable roots. The conditions were not very good, the shade being too close to the plants and the plants being set too far apart. The yield will probably be larger with the shade now in use. The 150 roots obtained by dividing the above crop now occupy less than one-fourth of a square rod and are set in rows one foot apart and 6 inches apart in the rows.

Time Necessary To Mature Crop.

The number of years necessary to produce the largest crop has not been definitely determined, but the roots begin to decay after the fourth year and the central and largest part of the root decays at the oldest scar, leaving two or more plants in place of the old one. No advantage can be gained by growing the plants more than three years and probably very little by growing them more than two years. For propagation alone, one year will give good results, while for maintaining a constant area and producing a crop, two or three years, depending upon the growth made, will give a good crop of large, marketable roots.

Market Conditions.

Golden Seal is a root the price of which has fluctuated widely, because of the alternate oversupply and scarcity, manipulation of the market, lack of demand, or other influences. High prices will cause the diggers to gather the root in abundance, thus overstocking the market, which the next season results in lower prices, at which diggers refuse to collect the root, thus again causing a shortage in the supply. Lack of demand usually brings about a shrinkage in price, even tho the supply is light, while an active demand will cause prices to advance in spite of a plentiful supply.

The arrival of spring dug root has a weakening effect on the market, altho the fall dug root is always preferred. For the past few years, however, high prices have been steadily maintained and there appears to be but one cause for this and that is, as already pointed out, that the forests no longer yield unlimited quantities of this valuable root, as in former years, and the scant supply that can be had is inadequate to meet the constantly increasing demand.

According to the market reports contained in the Oil, Paint and Drug Reporter, the year 1904 opened with a quotation of 74 to 75 cents, will soon advance (in one week early in February) from 76 cents to 95 cents. A still further advance occurred about the end of February, when the price went up from $1.00 to $1.25 per pound. In March the market was almost destitute of supplies, but lack of interest brought the price down to $1.10. In May the price again advanced to $1.25 and it was stated that the local supplies were being held by a small number of dealers, altho it was believed that together they held not more than 1,000 pounds. About June 1st the arrival of spring dug roots cause a the market to sag, prices ranging from $1.10 to $1.18 during that month and in July from 90 cents to $1.10.

In August the lowest price was $1.15 and the highest $1.50, no discrimination being made between the fall dug and the spring dug roots. From September 1st to October 15th, 1904, the price of Golden Seal varied but little, $1.35 being the lowest and $1.40 the highest quotation. No supplies worth mentioning can be obtained in the West; the stock in New York is short and the demand, especially for export, is increasing. It is impossible to ascertain the exact annual consumption of Golden Seal root, but the estimates furnished by reliable dealers place these figures at from 200,000 to 300,000 pounds annually, about one-tenth of which is probably used for export.

It will be observed that the price of this article is very sensitive to market conditions and it seems probable that the point of overproduction would be easily reached if a large number of Golden Seal growers were to meet with success in growing large areas of this drug.

By ALICE HENKEL, Assistant, and G. FRED FLUME,
Scientific Assistant, Drug and Medicinal Plant Investigations.
U. S. Department of Agriculture.

Ginseng and Other Medicinal Plants, 1936, was written by A. R. Harding.