Echinacea & goldenseal–worts at risk

Echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia and other species in the genus) and goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) are wonderfully medicinal herbs, but have been overharvested for the last century or so. With both of these plants, the roots are the part most used, which means that in making a medicine, the plant is killed (compare that to harvesting flowers from a living plant), so you can see how harvesting too many plants can quickly deplete the entire population in a given region–there are no plants left to leave new seeds.

Part of the reason these plants have been so severely overharvested is due to a misunderstanding of how they work. Echinacea is commonly perceived as an “immune booster,” while goldenseal is commonly called an “herbal antibiotic.” Neither of these ideas reflects the true medicinal power of these two plant allies. And they have led to people (over)using echinacea and goldenseal in excessive doses and for long periods. Not only does over-use of echinacea place the survival of the species at risk, it also can cause the very symptoms people are trying to prevent by taking it!

A list of North American plants at risk from United Plant Savers.

A list of North American plants at risk from United Plant Savers (click to embiggen).

According to Matthew Wood’s Book of Herbal Wisdom, the eclectic physicians and homeopaths of the late 19th-early 20th century viewed echinacea primarily as a remedy for low-grade septic infections (not the flu!). Don’t be deceived into thinking that just because the eclectics lived and worked a hundred years ago, they didn’t know their stuff–they used echincea intensively and were very familiar with its properties. Nowadays we’re rediscovering forgotten ancient and traditional knowledge about herbs, and even in cases where the herbs are still in use, we often find that the reasons for using those herbs have been forgotten.

echinacea purpurea

Echinacea purpurea. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

This is not to say that echinacea won’t help you get over a cold–it most likely will. But we can still use it conscientiously. For example, by using small doses of a tincture instead of capsules or tea, to make the harvested herb go farther, or by using parts of the plant other than the root, so that the entire plant doesn’t need to be dug up.

Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis). Photo courtesy Wikimedia commons.

Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis). Photo courtesy Wikimedia commons.

Goldenseal has a particular affinity to the mucous membranes of the digestive tract, and secondarily on the nervous system (especially the solar plexus) and the rest of the mucosa (this from Wood again, quoting the old 19th century herbalist-doctors). It is particularly useful where problems in the digestive tract have led to malnutrition and/or anemia. It is also used to stop bleeding and help repair torn tissues. My feeling on the “herbal antibiotic” issue is that it’s a mixed metaphor, so to speak. If you need an antibiotic, go get an antibiotic! (I know, not as easily or inexpensively done in the US as in other countries. But still advisable if you need to kill lots of bacteria.) If you want to heal the conditions that led to the proliferation of bacteria in the first place, then look to the herbs.

These two herbs are a reminder that ethical use of plant medicine goes beyond just the harvesting–it means entering into a reciprocal relationship with the herbs, in which we must care for them as they care for us. This care includes, at the most basic, helping to ensure the plants don’t go extinct, and also understanding their powers so that we only use them when we most need them, and in the smallest amounts that will be therapeutic.

(Read more about at risk herbs at United Plant Savers Species At-Risk.)

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