Yellowroot’s elegant, subtle maroon flowers are just emerging in March in the mountains of North Carolina. This native shrub in the buttercup family prefers the dappled sunlight and silty soils of the streamside and floodplain, but will tolerate drier soil in cultivation. Yellowroot grows abundantly in central and southern Appalachia near forest streams that are wide enough to allow a moderate amount of sunlight. Interestingly, it has disjunct (geographically separated) populations up into Maine, south into Florida, and west into Texas. Many medicinal herbs growing far from their core populations have been carried by Native people and planted; perhaps this is the origin of these yellowroot outliers. Yellowroot reproduces by seeds and spreads clonally through its rhizomes, which are the primary medicinal part used.
Yellowroot (Xanthorhiza simplicissima, Ranunculaceae) is the only member of its genus, and one of the few woody members of the buttercup family. Its scientific name is quite descriptive, with the genus meaning yellowroot (xantho= yellow, rhiza=root), and the species name referring to the simple, unbranched stem. If you say the species name with certain flair, and generous gesticulations, it takes on the feel of an Italian expletive.
Now, for the juicy medicinal information you have patiently been waiting for while we laboriously set the botanical and habitat stage. I have been gathering and using yellowroot for almost twenty years; it is one of the top twenty herbs used in my practice. I use it more often in tincture form, as its flavor is quite intense for most non-herbalists’ palettes. The tea is yellow and bitter, but quite serviceable and very appropriate for topical use as a strong wash or compress. Yellowroot has the following properties: bitter, cholagogue, hepatic, astringent, anti-inflammatory, and anti-microbial (anti-bacterial, anti-protozoan, anti-fungal, anti-viral).
The Cherokee used it as a topical remedy for hemorrhoids and sore eyes, and chewed it for sore throats and mouth. They put it in a formula with wild ginger (Asarum canadense, Aristolochiaceae), alder (Alnus serrulata, Betulaceae), wild cherry (Prunus serotina, Roasaceae), and rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera pubescens, Orchidaceae), and used the combination both as a blood tonic and appetite stimulant. It continues to be an important dye plant, rendering a yellow dye used to color fabric and basket materials. The Catawba used the roots in a decoction for colds and ulcerated stomachs, as well as a tonic for the liver and a remedy for jaundice.
The European settlers quickly caught on to the usefulness of yellowroot, and used it in similar ways to the Native peoples who taught them. Tommie Bass, who was an Alabama herbalist, wildcrafter, herb broker, and one of my personal herbal heroes, shared his sentiments on yellowroot in A Reference Guide to Medicinal Plants, Herbal Medicine Past and Present (Crellin and Philpott). Bass is quoted as saying “ It is one of the finest remedies we have. It’s been used ever since time for sore mouth, sore eyes, and stomach trouble. Another name for it is scurvy root. More people is taking it now for ulcers than for any other thing we know of. It’s absolutely real stuff. We’ve got so many people smiling after taking that, that ain’t no joke.”
It’s hard to follow this enthusiastic accolade, but I will attempt to add to yellowroot’s praises. I use yellowroot in a similar vein as how I use oregon grape root (Berberis spp., Berberidaceae) or goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis, Ranunculaceae). I wouldn’t say they are interchangeable, just as I wouldn’t confuse any long- haired, gray -bearded, barefoot man on the street for my husband. Yellowroot, like the other aforementioned herbs, contains the alkaloid berberine. It is helpful to recognize shared biochemistry, and even more helpful to combine this information with history of traditional use. Attributing all of a plant’s medicinal qualities to the presence of one constituent is quite reductionistic, when one considers that each plant can possess hundreds, if not thousands, of medicinal compounds.
Yellowroot, as compared to goldenseal or oregon grape root, is much more astringent. This helps to explain its historical use for hemorrhoids, sore eyes, and peptic ulcers. Its alkaloid content differs from goldenseal: yellowroot has considerably more berberine than goldenseal and unlike goldenseal, it contains no hydrastine.
Berberine gives these plants their characteristic yellow color and bitter flavor and has demonstrated antimicrobial activity against bacteria, fungi, protozoans, viruses, and helminths (roundworm, pinworm, and other larger intestinal parasites). Berberine has gained recent attention in the media and medical community as a promising adjunct therapy to antibiotics in the treatment of MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphyloccus aureus). Berberine is anti-inflammatory (partly through inhibiting inflammatory cytokine production) and has demonstrated hypotensive activity (lowering blood pressure).
I have been recommending yellowroot as a strong aqueous douche and internal treatment, in tincture form, for bacterial vaginosis, trichomoniasis, and vaginal yeast infection, with good success. When I had my tincture business, I formulated a general immunostimulant and anti-microbial combination called EchImmunity, which contained Echinacea purpurea, Spilanthes acmella, Usnea spp., Xanthorhiza simplicissima, and Commiphora myrrha.
Yellowroot is also one of the primary herbs I recommend for infectious intestinal distress, with symptoms presenting acutely and rapidly. I have also used it as one of the primary herbs in treatment of a young man with multiple food sensitivities and peptic ulcers, with good results. It is interesting to note that bitters can sometimes aggravate peptic ulcers, in part by increasing hydrochloric acid. Yellowroot’s traditional and contemporary use in the treatment of peptic ulcers can perhaps be explained through its astringent and anti-inflammatory effect on eroded mucosa, and its antibacterial properties. Berberine has a deleterious affect on Helicobacter pylori, the bacteria associated with peptic ulcers.
I use yellowroot internally and topically as a treatment for bacterial skin infections, including Staphylococcus aureus. It is sometimes taken with antibiotic treatment, and afterwards to help prevent recurring infection. When taken without an antibiotic (I respect the client’s wish here, while explaining the inherent risk of virulent infection), I usually add other immunostimulatory and anti-microbial herbs to their internal formula, such as Echinacea purpurea, Usnea spp., Ligusticum porteri, and Spilanthes acmella. The internal dosage of the formula is usually 5 -6 mls (droppers-full) six times a day. It is important to note here that every case is unique, and supervised medical attention is advised in such infections. I have worked with healthy young adults, whose infections weren’t spreading or systemic, and were not immunocompromised or hospitalized for serious health conditions (nosocomial or community-acquired MRSA is very common). I have seen it kick such infections a little more than half the time, but often the appropriate and effective treatment involves the concurrent use of antibiotics. The working knowledge of herbal and essential oil treatment of antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections is paramount as many people are dying needlessly because of ignorance in the field of combined pharmaceutical and botanical strategies.
Yellowroot’s lore and use is still alive in Appalachia; sometimes in the flea market I see someone selling a bundle of thin long yellow roots tied together with string. Many people remember gathering it as a child with their grandmas, and some still carry on the tradition, or at the very least, chew on a root when they are hiking or camping. Even so, it is not readily available in commerce, and not especially known outside its range. To my knowledge it is not being cultivated on a commercial scale as the demand is low and currently supplied by wildcrafting. Should it ever become wildly popular, it would be easy to decimate our local populations. Luckily, it is easy to grow in a wide variety of habitats, should the demand for yellowroot increase.
I give thanks for the beauty and healing yellowroot has provided for countless generations.