In the most urban areas of Athens, one is unlikely to find a plant which once predominated along creeks. Soil disturbance and invasive plants have made yellowroot’s original home inhospitable. If you find a shaded or semi-shaded stream that isn’t covered in invasive plants, such as on the Orange Trail at the State Botanical Garden or on private lands, you’ll likely see yellowroot performing its ecological, streamside vegetation function of maintaining the integrity of a streambank, preventing erosion.
Yellowroot (Xanthorhiza simplicissima) is an eastern North American, native perennial shrub growing in thick mats with its long, thin root horizontally holding fast to the soil on the edge of the streambank. There is very little demarcation of where the root ends and the stem begins. Greyish, bark-covered stems stand between one-three feet, bare of foliage until a spray of attractive, bright green leaves erupt at the top. The foliage consists of deeply serrated, pinnately or bipinnately compound leaves, meaning several leaflets grow on one leaf stalk, or leaflets grow on smaller stems within a larger pinnately compound leaf.
In April and May, yellowroot’s inconspicuous, yet charming, clusters of brownish-purple flowers bloom, often dangling from under the leaves. As they become fruits, the clusters turn greenish-yellow.
Among the Appalachian and Piedmont area of the South, yellowroot is held in high esteem as a premier tonic herb for healing stomach complaints, such as ulcers, and canker sores.
Old-timey herbalist Tommie Bass provided yellowroot to many people for stomach ulcers with positive results. According to herbalist Darryl Patton’s book with Tommie Bass, the FDA instructed Mr. Bass to stop claiming yellowroot would cure stomach ulcers.
A mechanism behind yellowroot’s success with ulcers is due to an antibacterial, bitter alkaloid constituent called berberine, which is also found in other herbs of the Ranunculaceae family, goldenseal and coptis root. Research confirming a bacterial component to ulcers, from the Heliobacter pylori, gave insight into how yellowroot has traditionally healed ulcers for hundreds of years.
Other medicinal uses for yellowroot include cleansing the liver and gallbladder. Herbal medicines of a yellow nature are often used for liver complaints, which is either coincidental, or it’s an illustration of the Doctrine of Signatures at work: a theory that plants have features indicating what their use is for humans. The yellow color is associated with jaundice.
Catawba Indians used yellowroot for jaundice, stomach complaints and as a cold remedy, and Cherokee would drink its tea as a tonic for the blood and nerves, or just simply chew the bitter stem for mouth sores.
Around Georgia, rural roadside stands, country stores and the DeKalb Farmer’s Market are the only places where I have found harvested yellowroot available. In these markets, yellowroot comes either pre-brewed as a yellow tea, or as a bundle of one-inch twigs, which can then be boiled in water at home.
To make a tea of the roots, boil a cup of roots in 24 ounces of water for 20 minutes. Strain and either drink a cup of tea, or gargle with it. Alcohol extract tinctures are also very effective.
This article was originally published in the Athens Banner-Herald on Sunday, May 29th, 2011.