Traditionally employed as a natural, herbal medicine for its astringent and antibacterial properties, yellow root is a woodland perennial plant. It has many other alternative common names, such as "goldenseal," "orange root," "Indian turmeric" and "jaundice root." It thrives as a groundcover in a cool, damp garden setting in U.S. Department of Agriculture winter hardiness zones 4 through 9.
Yellow root is a member of Ranunculaceae, the buttercup plant family, making it related to garden plants like larkspur, clematis, anemone and columbine. Yellow root is botanically named Hydrastis canadensis.
Yellow root grows naturally in the shaded, moist woodlands of eastern North America. It grows from New England across southern Ontario around the Great Lakes, west to Minnesota and Kansas and Oklahoma, then eastward to the Atlantic Ocean.
Yellow root is slow-growing and grows from a thick yellow-orange rhizome (underground stem). The leaf stems are no more than 12 inches tall and carry a rounded to heart-shaped leaf with five to nine lobes. The leaf is teethed on its edges and is dark green. Mature-aged plants bear a single basal leaf and two stem leaves. In mid to late spring, a greenish white flower, about 1/2 inch in diameter, is held just above the foliage. Later in summer, a red, raspberry-like cluster of berries with tiny black seeds develops.
The yellow root plant is a poisonous plant, although consumption of any part of the plant is only mildly toxic, according to Poisonous Plants of North Carolina. All parts contain alkaloids, namely hydrastine, berberine, canadine and berber-astine.
The North American Pollinator Protection Campaign notes that yellow root is among the oldest documented medicinal plants native to North America. Native American peoples ate yellow root to treat respiratory, immune system and gastrointestinal illnesses and as a topical treatment for inflammation. The alkaloids in the plant, most often sold as a ground root powder, carry antibacterial, antifungal and antiyeast properties.
Plant yellow root in a humus-rich, light and crumbly soil that is consistently moist but well draining so that it never becomes soggy. A sandy soil that is slightly acidic to slightly alkaline suffices. The plant's roots must never dry out in the soil. It prospers in the dappled light under trees, or in a partial shade garden setting where it receives no more than 4 hours of direct sun rays daily, preferably only in the early morning or early evening. Dig and divide rhizomes and replant them in either spring or fall months.