Plants with National Botanical Significance in Canada: Goldenseal, an Ontario Species at Risk

Endangered species, such as the iconic panda, get all the attention. In Canada, Hydrastis canadensis or goldenseal has been in decline since the late 1800s. It is now under threat, but it garners little attention. Maybe that’s because it is a plant and not a golden seal. Goldenseal, a plant with national botanical significance in Canada, is now found only in extreme southwestern Ontario, though it historically ranged across southern Ontario.

We are now living in the Anthropocene: the sixth mass extinction, but now occurring due to human actions. Habitat destruction and degradation, over-harvesting, and pollution continue to cause climate change and drive biodiversity losses. 

Concerned citizens in countries around the world joined together to demand action. Ten years ago, nearly every nation agreed to specific goals to preserve biodiversity. However, the biodiversity goals are not being met, and the news on species conservation is not good. The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity recently issued its periodic Global Diversity Outlook report. As of today, only six of the twenty global targets have been partially met.

Ours to Save: The distribution, status & conservation needs of Canada’s endemic species” by the Nature Conservancy of Canada and NatureServe Canada documents 308 species, subspecies, and varieties of plants, animals, and fungi that have been recorded only in Canada. The statistics are grim: almost 40% of these endemics are imperilled; eight species are already extinct; only 10% are somewhat secure. Just over a third of our endemic species are vascular plants; this number reaches about 40% when fungi, lichen, mosses and liverworts are added. Because of their restricted geographic range, endemic species may be more vulnerable to population decline or extinction from various factors, including habitat loss and the effects of climate change.

Goldenseal is a perennial woodland plant with a single stalk 20-25 cm tall, topped by a trio of large-lobed leaves. It is also called orangeroot because of its distinctive yellow roots.  It spreads asexually via rhizomes then, after 4-5 years, reaches maturity and flowers in early spring. Instead of petals, large white stamens make up the attractive solitary flowers. The scarlet fruit, which vaguely resemble raspberries, develops in mid to late summer. Goldenseal has long been valued as both a dye and medicinal tonic by First Nations communities, later adopted by European settlers. Its popularity in herbal medicine has grown steadily.

Goldenseal, though not endemic to Ontario, is considered “vulnerable” across its entire range because of anthropogenic factors. The rich, moist soils of deciduous forests and floodplains that goldenseal prefers are the same habitats under continued threat from deforestation, urban development, and expanding agriculture. Populations are further challenged by invasive species such as Phragmites and from harvesting.

Currently, there are both federal and provincial recovery plans for goldenseal. They tackle illegal harvesting, increase habitat protection, and establish new colonies.

Canadensis and other concerned organizations provide information and advocacy for the preservation of the rich biodiversity of plant life in Canada. Join us!

Goldenseal will be a part of Canadensis, the national botanical garden of Canada in Ottawa.

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