Golden Seal in Early American Medical Botany

Golden Seal in Early American Medical Botany

Although early American settlers favored the mostly European medicines they knew and trusted, the native medicinal plants were quickly learned out of necessity. European preparations were often scarce and as can be imagined, conditions in the new world often precipitated an increased need for them. At least some of the more common European herbs brought over by the Colonists became naturalized and grew as weeds [1]. From the beginning of the 17th century, when the Colonists first landed in Virginia, the native Indians were known to have a knowledge of the indigenous plants and to utilize them for their curative properties [2,3,4]. Some of these Indian remedies were learned and widely used by the settlers, and a few such as ginseng, tobacco, and sassafras were exported [5], but introduction and acceptance into regular medical practice was slow. A number of important species of native plants were used by the early settlers, but little of note was written about them in popular books, journals, and pamphlets until the early 1790s. In fact, a careful review of the works listed in Austin [6] making mention of medicinal plants reveals that before 1800, only a few works enumerated a small number of species [7,8,9,10,11,12]. A notable exception is Bartram’s small work on the “Description, virtues and uses of sundry plants… [13],” wherein he mentions the medicinal uses of several important American herbs, among them Collinsonia, Sanguinaria, Polygonatum and Lobelia. Few materia medicas, or works on medicinal substances, were printed at all before 1800—compared with after that date—and the few that were usually went through several editions. Original works were especially lacking—though several important British works on herbs or medicinal plants were reprinted in America, most notably Culpeper’s popular herbal [14], Lewis’ New Edinburgh Dispensatory, [15] and Cullen’s Materia Medica, [16]. Major novel American sources for information on the medicinal uses of imported plant drugs included almanacs and German Krauterbuchs [17,18,19,20]. A number of periodicals [21,22,23] offered lists of medicinal plants with their uses and availability. The most often described indigenous American herbs in these works were Virginia snake-root, Senega snake-root, sassafras, ginseng, Indian pink, Collinsonia, Sanguinaria, Lobelia and a few others [24,25]. After 1800, an increasing number of works mention American plants [26,27]. One American herb, well-known to the native American Indians was the woodland plant, golden seal (Hydrastis canadensis L.). Golden seal is today among the top-selling herbs in the American health food market and was an official drug plant in the United States almost continuously from (1830-1955), but was initially slow in being accepted or written about. Bartram does not mention it, although it does rarely occur in Philadelphia and other parts of Pennsylvania where he lived and botanized. Golden seal grows naturally from the northeast border of South Carolina to the lower half of New York and east to northern Arkansas and the southeast corner of Wisconsin. It is only abundant in Ohio, Indiana, West Virginia, Kentucky, and part of Illinois [28]. The plant is from the Ranunculaceae (the buttercup or crowfoot family), is a low-growing herbaceous perennial, and has a bright yellow rhizome, due to the colored alkaloid, berberine. Linnaeus published golden seal under the name “Hydrophyllum” in the 1753 edition of Species Plantarum, for at the time he had seen only the leaves of the plant, which appear similar to members of the Hydrophyllaceae. He corrected his error in 1759 in Systema Naturale with the name Hydrastis. Linnaeus kept Ellis’ name, whom he gives as the authority for Hydrastis; assuming the misconception that the plant grew in “bog meadows” [29]. Golden seal was a favorite medicine of a number of Indian tribes and is mentioned in the later ethnobotanical literature for a number of uses. For instance, the Cherokee mixed the root powder with bear grease for use as an insect repellent and also favored it as a diuretic, stimulant, and as a wash for sore and inflamed eyes, while the “Catawbas boiled the root for jaundice, ulcerated stomach, colds, and sore mouth. A piece of the green or dried root was chewed to relieve the stomach.” [30]. Hunter, who was raised by the Kickapoo Indians, made other early comments on the use of the plant, generally agreeing with earlier reports but emphasizing its use as an important remedy as a cold watery infusion for eyes irritated by autumn prairie smoke, a common occurrence [31]. Because of its bright yellow color, it is not surprising that golden seal was also an important dye plant, for which it is mentioned by Martin as early as 1782 (Lloyd, p. 86). It was not until Barton, Professor of Materia Medica at the University of Pennsylvania and ardent supporter of the use of American medicinal plants in medical practice, that the medical uses of golden seal were mentioned (Barton). He wrote in the first part of his “Collections …. towards a Materia Medica” that the ‘Cherake’ use it to cure cancer. In the 2nd part of the work (1804) he says “The root of the plant is a very powerful bitter.” He adds that the plant is “a popular remedy in some parts of the United States,” and that “an infusion of the root in cold water is also employed as a wash in inflammations of the eyes.” Sore eyes and mouth were undoubtedly the most common early uses of Hydrastis. These uses are recorded not only by Barton, but in the handwriting of Captain Lewis in 1804, during his expedition with Clark to the Pacific coast. The plant was collected by Lewis, and the notes on the original herbarium sheet give a detailed description of its preparation as “a sovereign remedy for sore eyes..and excellent mouth water.” To make a preparation for eye infections, the rhizome was infused in cold or hot water. Golden seal was official in the form of the whole root and the alcoholic or the glycerin extract [42] in the U.S.P. from 1830, 1860-1926; and in the National Formulary (1888, 1936-1955). The alkaloid Hydrastine was official in USP 1900-09. In 1982 it was still official in Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, France, Italy, Mexico, Portugal, Romania, and Spain [43]. After 1840, golden seal is mentioned in many materia medicas and journal articles (see Lloyd for a complete listing), but it was not until 1852 that King’s more detailed account of its clinical uses stimulated the interest of the Eclectic medical doctors, an interest that would continue until the 1930s, when this school of largely botanical medicine-oriented doctors rapidly declined with the rise of allopathy [44]. Because of the enthusiastic adoption of golden seal by the Eclectics, it became known as an Eclectic remedy, but eventually crossed over into use by the Allopaths as well, as seen by its inclusion into official medicine in the U.S. Pharmacopeia and National Formulary. King was more critical than previous authors and omitted some of what he considered to be overblown claims for the plant [45]. A complete list of conditions (and they are numerous) claimed to be helped by golden seal can be found in the National Dispensatory (1886) [46]. It can be argued that in the Eclectics, many of the American medicinal plants that we use today got their first critical evaluation. Several eclectic works have been reprinted and are valuable sources of clinical data on these plants (47,48). Although not up to today’s laboratory standards, these works were several steps beyond the (mostly) purely empirical accounts of American plants that came before. Several of the doctors used herbal remedies for over 50 years (King, Scudder, Felter). King emphasized its use in cases of gonorrhea, spermatorrhea, cystitis, and other inflammation of the mucous membranes in urinary tract infections. Other Eclectic doctors and regular doctors recommended golden seal for chronic constipation, general debility, and as a restorative for internal organs damaged by alcoholism (49,50).

The Drug Companies

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, many pharmaceutical companies manufactured golden seal products. Squibb sold the root as a hemostatic, astringent, cholagogue, and antihydrotic in whole or powdered form, offering pure hydrastine as well [51]. Parke-Davis sold Tincture Hydrastis, Fluid Extract Hydrastis, and Solid Extract Hydrastis, as well as a number of compound formulas in pill or tablet form containing Hydrastis [52]. Lilly offered an extract standardized to 9 to 11 percent of ether-soluble alkaloids [53] and Thayer the tincture, wine and fluid extract of golden seal [54]. The Homeopaths adopted the remedy for catarrh and poor digestion, and it was still official in 1979 (HPUS 8) [55]. After the Eclectics, golden seal was still sold and used in medical practice until 1960, when it ceased to be official, though modern American herbalists recomended it in the 1930s [56], the 1970s [57] and still do today [58]. In the late 1980s, golden seal has developed a reputation as a means to clear the blood of drug residues, enabling one to pass tests to detect such substances. This use has been shown to be without basis in fact [59]. Despite this, modern science has, at least in part, supported some of the medical claims of golden seal in showing that it has anti-bacterial, choleretic, and anti-convulsive activity [60].


  1. Green, S.A. 1881. “A Centennial address delivered before the Massachusetts Medical Society. at Cambridge.” History of Medicine in Massachusetts. Boston: A. Williams and Co.
  2. Vogel, V.J. 1970. American Indian Medicine. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
  3. Marti-Ibanex, F., ed. 1958. History of American Medicine. New York: MD Publications, Inc.
  4. Bowers, J.Z. and E.F. Purcell, eds. 1977. Advances in American Medicine: Essays at the Bicentennial. New York: Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation.
  5. Blanton, W.B. 1972. Medicine in Virginia in the seventeenth century. New York: Arno Press and the New York Times.
  6. Austin.
  7. Elliott, J. 1784. The Medical Pocket-book, 1st ed. Philadelphia: Robert Bell.
  8. Elliott, J. 1791. The Medical Pocket-book, 2nd ed. Boston: David West.
  9. Tennent, J. 1734. Every man his own doctor: or, the poor planter’s physician, 2nd ed. Williamsburg and Annapolis: William Parks.
  10. Wesley, J. 1764. Primitive physick: or, An easy and natural method of curing most diseases, 12th ed. Philadelphia: Andrew Steuart.
  11. Tweedy, J. 1760. A catalogue of druggs [sic] and of chymical and Galenical medicines… Newport?: James Franklin?
  12. Lewis, W. 1796. The Edinburgh new dispensatory, 4th ed. Philadelphia: Thomas Dobson.
  13. Bartram, J. 1751. Description, virtues and uses of sundry plants of these northern parts of America, and particularly of the newly discovered Indian cure for the venereal disease. Philadelphia: B. Franklin and D. Hall.
  14. Cullpepper, N. 1720. Pharmacopeia Londinensis. Boston: John Allen.
  15. Lewis, W. 1791. The Edinburgh new dispensatory. Philadelphia: T. Dobson.
  16. Cullen, W. 1775. Lectures on the materia medica. Philadelphia: Robert Bell.
  17. Tobler, J. 1754. The Pennsylvania Town and Country-man’s Almanack, for the Year of our Lord 1755. Germantown: C. Sower, jun.
  18. Saur, C. 1762. Der Hoch-Deutsche Americanische Calender, auf das Jahr ….1763. Germantown: Christoph Saur.
  19. Freeman, F. 1767. Freeman’s New-York Almanack, for the Year of our Lord 1768. New York: John Holt. [Guerra 334].
  20. Miller, H. 1770. Philadelphischer Calender auf das Jahr 1771. Philadelphia: Henrich Miller. [Guerra 351].
  21. The Boston Gazette, or Country Journal. 1755-1798. Boston: Benjamin Edes and John Gill. [Guerra 452].
  22. The New-York Gazette; and the Weekly Mercury. 1768-1783. New York: Hugh Gaine. [Guerra 562].
  23. The Pennsylvania Gazette. 1729-1778. Philadelphia: B. Franklin and H. Meredith. [Guerra 602].
  24. Elliot, J. 1791. Medical Pocket Book, 3rd ed. Philadelphia.
  25. Short, T. 1751. Medicina Britanica. Philadelphia: Ben Franklin.
  26. Austin, R.B. 1961. American Medical Imprints. Washington: U.S. Dept. of Health, Educationa and Welfare.
  27. Guerra, F. 1962. American Medical Bibliography: 1639-1783. New York: Lathrop and Harper.
  28. Fernald, . 1950. Gray’s Flora (xx). New York: Van Nostrand.
  29. Lloyd, J.U. and C.G. Lloyd. 1884-7. Drugs and Medicines of North America. Cincinnati: Lloyd Bros.
  30. Vogel, op. cit.
  31. Hunter, J.D. 1824. Memoirs of a captivity among the indians of North America. Reprinted by New York: Schocken Books.
  32. Barton, B.S. 1793. Amer. Phil. Soc., o.s. 3: 100-115.
  33. Barton, B.S. 1798-1804. Collections for An Essay Towards a Materia Medica of the United States. Philadelphia: A. & G. Way. (Lloyd Bul. Reproduction Series #1).
  34. Coxe, J.R. 1814. American Dispensatory, 3rd ed. Philadelphia: Thomas Dobson.
  35. Rafinesque, C.S. 1828. Medical Flora. Philadelphia: Atkinson & Alexander.
  36. Pharmacopeia of the United States. 1830. New York: S. Converse.
  37. Smith, E. 1830. Botanic Physician. New York: Murphey and Bingham.
  38. Howard, H. 1873. Howard’s Domestic Medicine. Philadelphia: Quaker City Pub. House.
  39. Beach, W. 1832. The American Practice of Medicine, 3 vols. New York: Bettes & Anstice.
  40. Wood, G.B. and Bache, F. 1834. Philadelphia: Grigg and Elliot.
  41. Thompson, S. 1835. New Guide to Health or Botanic Family Physician. Boston: J.Q. Adams.
  42. Gathercoal, E.N. 1942. Checklist of Native and Introduced Drug Plants in the U.S. Chicago: National Research Council.
  43. Martindale: The Extra Pharmacopoeia, 28th ed. J.F. Reynolds, editor. London: Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain (xx).
  44. Coulter, H. 1973. Divided Legacy, 3 vols. Richmond: North Atlantic Books.
  45. King, J. 1866. American Dispensatory, 7th ed. Cincinnati: Moore, Wilstach and Baldwin.
  46. Stille, A. and J.M. Maisch. 1886. The National Dispensatory. Philadelphia: Lea Bros. and Co.
  47. Felter, H. and J.U. Lloyd. 1898. Kings’s American Dispensatory. Portland: Reprinted by Eclectic Medical Publications (1983).
  48. Ellingwood, F. 1898. American Materia Medica, Therapuetics and Pharmacognosy. Reprinted by Portland: Eclectic Medical Publications.
  49. Ellingwood, op. cit.
  50. Felter & Lloyd, op. cit.
  51. Squibb. 1906. Squibb’s Materia Medica. New York: E.R. Squibb and Sons.
  52. Park-Davis. 1890. Organic Materia Medica, 2nd ed. Detroit: Parke-Davis.
  53. Lilly and Co. 1925. Handbook of Pharmacy and Therapuetics, 7th rev. Indianapolis: Eli Lily and Co.
  54. Thayer. 1877. Descriptive catalogue of fluid and solid extracts. Cambridge: John Ford and Sons.
  55. Pharmacopeia Convention. 1979. Homeopathic Pharmacopeia of the U.S. Falls Church: American Institute of Homeopathy.
  56. Kloss, J. 1939. Back to Eden. Reprinted, Santa Barbara: Woodbridge Press (1975).
  57. Christopher, J.R. 1976. School of Natural Healing. Springville: Christopher Publications.
  58. Tierra, M. 1980. The Way of Herbs. Santa Cruz: Unity Press.
  59. Foster, S. 1989. “xx”. Herbalgram.
  60. Leung, A.Y. 1980. Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients. New York: J. Wiley and Sons.
Formerly published in Pharmacy in History

Science & Herb Articles

Stay in touch

Sign up for my newsletter and I'll send you a free ebook on the health benefits of Kombucha!

By submitting this form, you are consenting to receive marketing emails from Christopher Hobbs.

Special Events

May 2023

Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun

Follow on Instagram

This error message is only visible to WordPress admins
Error: Access Token is not valid or has expired. Feed will not update.
Scroll to Top