As combines, pickers, diggers and crop-handling machinery of all descriptions sputter to life in the chill of a fall dawn, harvest season begins on farms across the United States’ Midwest. Farmers pray for dry weather and mild temperatures to collect the bounty of another growing season. None will draw an easy breath until the crops are safely dried, stored or sold.
On our farm, the approach to harvest season is different, but the anticipation is the same. The equipment we use is simple and low-tech, yet it helps yield a valuable crop. I’m not talking about corn, wheat or beans. I’m talking about goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), the native medicinal plant with roots of gold.
What is goldenseal?
Goldenseal is a perennial plant native to most U.S. eastern states and southeastern provinces of Canada. It has been recognized as a valuable medicinal plant for centuries. There’s no hocus-pocus or superstition here because goldenseal derives its value from the medicinal alkaloids berberine, hydrastinine and canadine contained in its rootstock. These compounds have proven antibiotic properties and are extracted by pharmaceutical companies for a variety of uses.
Goldenseal derivatives are used extensively in eye wash products, malarial medicines and by the nutraceutical (beneficial foods or supplements) industry. The popularity of this herb has grown exponentially during the last 20 years, when it was rediscovered by health enthusiasts, herbalists and naturopathic healers.
Today, this plant is an endangered species, and it is illegal to pick or dig in the wild in many states. It may, however, be cultivated. In fact, many wild plant organizations like the National Center for the Preservation of Medicinal Herbs in Rutland, Ohio, encourage the cultivation of plants like goldenseal under natural conditions in their natural environment. The organizations even provide serious growers with technical assistance.
Harvested goldenseal products may be legally sold, providing the grower can prove the plants were cultivated in the United States. Retaining your receipts from planting stock purchases is usually all that is required. In some states, however, wild goldenseal may be dug and sold. Be sure to check with your state’s department of agriculture or department of natural resources before attempting to dig any wild plants. These agencies may also be helpful in establishing a cultivated venture or locating plant stock sources.
Planted as seeds or seedlings, most goldenseal must grow for 3 to 5 years (in the northern-most states) before yielding large, potent rootstock. The plant is perennial. This may seem extreme, but the older plants are also valuable as seed producers. The long growing time is not lost since the seeds can be collected and sold or used as a source of free planting stock to expand your enterprise or replant harvested beds. Mature plants produce seeds annually.
Fortunately for the grower, the harvest of goldenseal is a three-pronged (pun intended) endeavor since the entire plant – tops (stems and leaves), seeds and rootstock – is saleable.
The first items to be harvested are the non-seed-bearing stems about a month after emergence. They should be collected between July 1 and August 1. Buyers are looking for a lush, dark green color and product that has been dried properly. Yellow or brown stems and moldy leaves are not saleable. Don’t attempt to ship or sell this type of inferior merchandise.
Next, mature seed heads will begin to ripen, looking very much like a red raspberry, around mid-July. When scarlet, they should be collected and stratified or sown in a new planting bed. The most valuable part of the plant is the root. Roots should be dug from large, mature plants at age 3 to 5 years. If in doubt, sample digs may be made, and any small rooted plants put back in the ground for another season’s growth.
Digging the rootstock should start around September 1. Tops will begin to yellow as dormancy progresses. The dormancy process increases the weight of the roots since saponins are draining from the leaves into the roots and increasing their value and potency. After collection, the tops should be snipped from the roots and any seed heads removed and collected before washing the rootstock. A thorough washing of the roots to separate dirt and forest debris must be done prior to drying. Failure to do this will result in a lower price for your roots since buyers are averse to paying for unneeded weight.
Drying and packing
Before drying, make a final inspection for cleanliness. Both goldenseal tops and roots should be dried in the shade under low humidity conditions, if possible. For best results, 3-by-6-feet drying screens made of hardware cloth allow air circulation above and below the product and will help expedite drying time. Depending on conditions, tops will take from five to seven days to dry, and roots will take a week to 10 days. Shriveled, crackly tops indicate drying is complete. Roots will snap clean and crisp when dry. The crop may now be packed for storage or shipment.
It is important that your product be dry before packing. If not, mildew will ruin it. After all this work, now is not the time to rush things. If a few more days of drying time is needed, so be it.
After the product is dry, place it in cardboard boxes for weighing. Make sure you record the weight of the empty container first, however. Fill your containers with product and deduct the weight of the container. Record this amount. The value of goldenseal products is based on weight, cleanliness and quality. Roots should be packed tightly, while tops can be crammed for shipment. Cramming will not decrease the value of the tops. Shipping costs are high, and it is less expensive to ship larger containers than many small ones. The U.S. Postal Service provides excellent shipping services for your goldenseal products.
Markets and prices
Goldenseal is an easily marketable product. Buyers are located throughout the Midwest. Some will actively compete to give growers the best price. Be sure to check several sources before selling. Don’t be afraid to submit a bid for your product that is above market price. Once committed to a price, don’t renege on your promises. If you treat buyers with fairness and supply a quality, clean product, you can develop a reputation that will command high prices and respect for your products. This should be your goal.
As an agricultural product, goldenseal prices are set by supply and demand (or anticipated supply and demand). During the last 10 years, prices for dried roots have ranged from a low of $10 per pound to a high of $45 per pound. Dried tops have fetched $4 per pound to $12 per pound during the same time period. The medicinal plant markets are cyclical and seem to experience low prices every three to five years. We are now emerging from such a time frame.
The largest buyers of goldenseal products are the pharmaceutical and nutraceutical companies. They deal in quantities of 1,000 pounds or more, so don’t look to be direct-selling to them any time soon. Large quantities of goldenseal are also exported to the Far East via Asian buyers and brokers. Again, all buyers are interested in potent, clean, quality products.
Growing goldenseal is not a get-rich-quick scheme. It can be grown as a hobby or as a commercial venture with high profit potential. Both methods help re-introduce these special plants to their native, natural habitat.
I enjoy the peace and tranquility of being in the forest and producing a renewable resource that helps others ... harvesting the plant with roots of gold.
Steve and Debra Edwards own and operate Aspen Hill Farms in Boyne City, Michigan, producing meat rabbits, poultry, medicinal plants and vegetables. Products are processed and direct-marketed to area resorts and restaurants. In 2003, the farms’ rabbit meat was used in an award-winning recipe from Food and Wine magazine.