HerbalGram, the periodical published by the American Botanical Council, recently published the article, which was written by plant conservation specialists Leah E. Oliver and Danna J. Leaman, PhD.
The article follows on the recent new assessment by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The group published the first global Red List assessment for goldenseal, which categorized the plant as Vulnerable, meaning it is “considered to be facing a high risk of extinction in the wild.” This assessment built on a previous global ranking update by the nonprofit NatureServe. These complementary conservation assessments are intended to inform policy, legislation, and conservation actions to prevent extinction and improve conservation status.
Oliver, a senior research botanist at NatureServe, authored the IUCN assessment, and Leaman, an ABC Advisory Board member who co-chairs the Medicinal Plant Specialist Group of the Species Survival Commission of the IUCN, was one of the assessment’s reviewers. Their HerbalGram article, which includes 91 references, thoroughly explains the current major threats to goldenseal’s survival in the wild and the justification for its listing as Vulnerable according to the IUCN’s Red List criteria.
Goldenseal is a forest understory plant native to eastern North America. It was a mainstay of Native American traditional herbal medicine, and has been a steady presence in the North American herb trade ever since. According to a recent market report by ABC, the herb is not a big item in trade, but interest is growing. According to the report, sales of combo echinacea/goldenseal products rose by almost 16% in 2017, reaching nearly $6 million in the natural channel.
Sustainability concerns are nothing new
The authors noted that concern about the viability of goldenseal populations stretches back to the late 1800s. The threats to the plant are several fold, said ABC founder and executive director Mark Blumenthal.
“Loss of habitat and urban sprawl is taking up a lot of the forest land where goldenseal grows as an understory plant,” Blumenthal told NutraIngredients-USA. “It has also been subjected to drought and intensive browsing by herbivores.”
The authors noted that there is little comprehensive information about the abundance of goldenseal populations and the precise extent to which they have been depleted. An earlier assessment by NatureServe put pegged the population as “apparently secure,” but in its more recent judgement the status of the botanical now straddles the line between that status and the next one up the concern ladder, which is “vulnerable.”
Long lived, slow reproducing plant
A complicating factor in judging the health and reproductive potential of goldenseal is that the plant, like many others, reproduces both from root clones and from seeds. It’s difficult if not impossible to tell if a given group of plants comes from a single progenitor or many.
The plant is also relatively long lived and starts setting seed at a late date. By its very biology the plant seems vulnerable to potential overexploitation as it exhibits low instances of seed production, high energetic cost of flowering, low genetic diversity, and small, isolated populations.
Wildcrafting has an effect
Wildcrafting seems to be having an impact on wild stands of the plant, which is now starting to be cultivated as well. The authors noted that stands of goldenseal in Ohio, where wild harvest is permitted, set fewer flowers than do stands in Ontario, where wild harvest is prohibited.
The plant is not a huge seller in the herbal trade. The HerbalGram article notes that a recent tonnage survey by the American Herbal Products Association puts the yearly harvest at about 40 tons. About 75% of that is wildcrafted, the authors noted. They also said relatively little goldenseal is sold overseas.
The herbal industry has taken note of ecological concerns. The authors said that AHPA’s Good Agricultural and Collection Practices (GACPs) that focus on desired quality and long-term sustainability for botanicals in general is a step in the right direction.
In addition, a USDA program called the Appalachian Beginning Forest Farmer coalition is attempting to develop an alternative supply source to wildcrafting of understory botanicals. Goldenseal is one of the botanicals covered by the program.
Additional steps recommended
Some of the additional steps the authors recommended are:
- Field inventory in key states with the highest reported abundance of goldenseal to verify state conservation status ranks;
- Population viability analyses to better understand patch extinction risk, growth, and response to harvest by region;
- Application of a robust monitoring and management system of wild harvest where it can be sustainable, and that builds on traditional, local knowledge and practices of experienced harvesters;
- Adoption of ecologically sound protocols for forest-grown production;
- Use of goldenseal sourced from verifiable and traceable sustainable production systems, whether cultivated, wild-harvested, or forest-grown (and willingness to support related additional costs).
Controversial, but necessary move
The authors noted that raising the threat assessment on goldenseal can be a controversial move, as it can impact people’s livelihoods. They said the aim is primarily an educational one to help inform future decision making.
“In the case of goldenseal, maintaining monitoring and control of international trade, strengthening monitoring and control of domestic wild-harvest and trade, and improving in situ and ex situ conservation of subpopulations in the United States and Canada will help ensure that this popular medicinal herb continues to be available to the herbal industry and consumers,” they said.
To read the full article, click here.