Seeing goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) in flower was a highlight of an April 30 trip to Avena Botanicals Biodynamic Gardens in Rockport. This perennial woodland plant, native to the deciduous forests of eastern North America, is a spring treat to see in flower, potentially growing in areas that also support trillium, Solomon’s seal, blue cohosh, spikenard and Jack-in-the-pulpit.

A member of the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae), the plant has a bright yellow, horizontal root and palmate, deeply lobed leaves. Plants grow about 12 inches tall in shade or partial (at least 75 percent) shade.

The leaves grow on stems that emerge from the rhizome annually and leave a scar on the rhizome when they die back in the fall. The leaf scar has the shape of an old-fashioned letter seal, hence the “seal” part of “goldenseal.”

Flowers are followed by big, bright red, raspberry-like berries in summer.

Both roots and leaves are used medicinally and are sold in salves, lotions, tablets, capsules and tinctures.

Medicinal effects of goldenseal are attributed to a combination of alkaloids present in the plant working together; they include hydrastine, berberastine, berberine, danadine and reticuline.

According to James F. Balch, M.D., and Phyllis A. Balch, C.N.C., in “Prescription for Nutritional Healing,” goldenseal is antiseptic, antibiotic and immune stimulating. One active compound, berberine, activates white blood cells that destroy bacteria, viruses, fungi and tumor cells, they say. They suggest putting 1 tsp. of goldenseal powder in a pint of boiling water, letting it cool, and sipping a teaspoon or two throughout the day, or mixing 5 to 10 drops of a goldenseal extract in water and drinking it three times a day.

Balch and Balch say not to use goldenseal if you’re pregnant; use it with caution if you’re allergic to ragweed; and not to take it daily for more than a week at a time. Others note other cautions; check with your health care provider for more information.

Avena Botanicals (www.avenabotanicals.com) sells goldenseal root extract alone and with Echinacea. Goldenseal “is traditionally used to resolve upper respiratory infections and to improve the integrity of inflamed mucus membranes of the sinuses, stomach, intestines and vagina,” says Avena (noting that these effects have not been evaluated by the FDA).

Because of its long-observed medicinal value for several ailments, goldenseal has been severely overharvested in the wild. Habitat destruction, including mountaintop removal for coal mining, has added to the demise of native stands. Hence, goldenseal is listed in CITES — the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. This international agreement aims to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.

One way to ensure the survival of goldenseal is to grow it in your own woods or under a fabricated shade structure. Johnny’s Selected Seeds sells two-year-old roots, shipping them in September and recommending site preparation the summer before roots are received.

The plant grows best in well-composted, humus-rich soil with a pH of 5.5 to 6.5, says Johnny’s. An area under oak, maple, sycamore or basswood is ideal; the shallow roots of conifers compete with goldenseal growth. The seed company recommends digging beds at least 6 inches deep, with raised centers to ensure that water runs off, and amending heavy soils with sand, compost or leaves to improve drainage. Good drainage is a must with this herb, says Johnny’s.

Leaves are collected in late summer. Roots, once they’re three to four years old, are harvested in the fall, after seeds have ripened, and are washed gently and dried for two to four weeks on screens placed out of direct sun and in a warm but not hot site.

You can replant some fresh root pieces to keep goldenseal growing. Cut rhizomes into half-inch or longer pieces, ensuring that each piece has a bud and roots, and replant these.

Further, detailed cultivation instructions appear in Johnny’s excellent fact sheet about goldenseal, accessed through a link at http://www.johnnyseeds.com/p-8193-goldenseal-og.aspx.