Coptis: A hydrastis substitute

by Paul Bergner

Medical Herbalism 07-31-96 8(1/2): 13

In the 1700s and early 1800s in North America, the “King of the Herbs” was Coptis Trifolia, or gold thread. In the early 1800s, Hydrastis canadensis (goldenseal) was used to replace this popular medicinal which had become scarce through overharvesting. King’s American Dispensatory states: “At one time it [coptis] was so popular as a domestic remedy that more of it was sold in Boston than almost any other remedy.” Goldenseal is now endangered, and coptis has recovered in abundance in the Eastern U.S. Both plants contain the constituent berberine, and coptis may make a reasonable therapeutic substitute for goldenseal. Early botanical texts describe coptis thus:

- Its use by the colonists was undoubtedly learned from the Native Americans, who used it extensively for mouth sores, poor digestion, and infections. It was used by Mohawks with the sap of White Ash in the ear to treat deafness (Erichsen-Brown, Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants. 1979)

- “This plant is one of the rather fine and prompt bitter tonics. It is a mistake to class it with quassia and gentian, for it is neither so intense nor permanent as these; but rather is of the grade of boneset and motherwort, though giving out its properties more speedily than these. It is one of the most grateful appetizers in convalescence from febrile attacks, and in all feeble conditions with weakness of the stomach. It is a popular New England remedy for aphthous sores in the mouth.” (Wm. H Cook, M.D. Physio-Medical Dispensatory, 1869)

- “In nursing sore mouth...we have repeatedly and promptly cured with the decoction when infusion of hydrastis had no effect. This would seem to indicate that its virtues are not wholly dependent upon berberine....In dyspepsia and in chronic inflammations of the stomach, equal parts of gold-thread and goldenseal, made into a decoction, with elixir vitriol added in proper quantity, will not only prove effectual, but in many instances of the latter kind, will permanently destroy the appetite for alcoholic beverages.” (Felter and Lloyd, King’s American Dispensatory.)

 -Comparisons with goldenseal

Coptis: bitter, clears heat (TCM), contains berberine, coptine, mild astringent

Goldenseal: bitter, clears heat (TCM), contains berberine, hydrastine, strong astringent

- Synonyms: Helleborus trifolius, H. trilobus, H. pumilus. Anemone groenlandica. Chrusa borealis. Coptis. Coptide. Mouth Root. Yellow Root. Canker Root. Vegetable Gold.

- An infusion may be made from half an ounce of the dried plant in a pint of water (dose 2-4 drams 3-4 times a day) or an ounce to a pint of 30% alcohol (dose 1 dram).

- A Chinese relative, Coptis chinensis, is also used similarly to hydrastis. This species contains 6% berberine.
  Copyright 2001 Paul Bergner

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