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MOF&G Cover Fall 2003

  

  You are here:  PublicationsMaine Organic Farmer & GardenerFall 2003Black Cohosh   
 Black Cohosh – A Native Woodland Plant Minimize

Black cohosh flowers
Black cohosh leaves and flowers. English photos.
Black cohosh foliage

By Deb Soule

In the early ’80s, while studying the native medicinal plants of North Carolina, I first met black cohosh growing wild in the Appalachian Mountains. Its 4- to 5-foot-tall, white flowering spires (racemes) were stunning to come upon in the deciduous forests. I immediately took a liking to this plant. A few years later I transplanted two young plants into my garden. Fourteen years later these plants have spread by roots to fill a 13- by 10- foot area with over 100 flowering racemes.

Black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa) is a hardy, woodland, herbaceous perennial that appears to be long-lived. A member of the Ranunculaceae family, black cohosh currently ranges from the Appalachian Mountain Range across the Eastern hardwood forest to the Ozark Plateau and north into the Great Lakes region (USDA, NRCS, 2001). Black cohosh is listed in The Flora of Maine (by Arthur Haines and Thomas F. Vining) as not occurring naturally in the wild here but as having escaped from cultivation in some areas in Maine.

The 30 black cohosh plants growing in Avena Botanicals’ Medicinal Herb Garden in West Rockport, Maine, look whimsical and magical as their stems emerge from the soil in early May. A deep brown, almost black color, they remind me of ferns as their leaves uncurl. The stem is smooth and furrowed and divides into three stems as it grows. The leaves are large and compound, with two or three lobes, double serrated and sharply pointed. The leaves look similar to red baneberry, Actaea rubra, a native to the Northeastern, North-Central and Western states.

Many white flowering spires can grow from one mature black cohosh plant, and each stalk can contain dozens of individual flowers. The flower buds look like tiny, round buttons that open into a flower with several stamens. Once the racemes are in full bloom, they are covered with flies, gnats and bees, busily pollinating the flowers. Black cohosh flowers have an unusual smell – some call it rather unpleasant or fetid – that attracts pollinators by the hundreds. In the fall, the racemes are covered with brown seeds that scatter in the wind.

A Candidate for CITES?

Organic cultivation of black cohosh is critical for its continued survival. Currently thousands of pounds of wild-harvested roots are being sold to foreign phytopharmaceutical companies yearly, primarily for menopausal formulas. Wild stands are diminishing because of the high commercial demand for the roots, the slow growth of the plant in the wild and the loss of wild woodland habitats due to large-scale logging and urbanization. Some herbalists believe that black cohosh will be the next medicinal plant to go on the CITES (Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) list. Goldenseal (Hydrastic canadensis) was placed on the CITES list several years ago, thanks to the hard work of United Plant Savers, a group of herbalists and botanists who realized how quickly wild stands of goldenseal were disappearing.

Propagation

Black cohosh can be propagated from root cuttings and from seed. Mature, seed-bearing plants are easily divided by cutting the rhizome/root in the fall with a sharp knife or machete. Each divided rhizome must contain a nascent bud and lots of rootlets.

If you are interested in growing black cohosh from seed, I highly recommend purchasing Richo Cech’s book, Growing At-Risk Medicinal Herbs. Richo has been growing medicinal herbs for many years and helped create a wonderful, organic herb seed company, Horizon Herbs, with his family.

If you want to purchase black cohosh plants, Paula and Mark Fulford of Teltane Farm in Monroe, Maine (525-7761), sell excellent, organically grown plants, and Fedco offers black cohosh plants through its tree catalog (Fedco Trees, PO Box 520, Waterville ME 04903).

Provide Some Shade

This herb should be planted in well composted, deciduous forest type soil. Space each plant 2 feet apart, either in shade or part shade. Once plant are in the ground, cover the soil with rotted leaf mulch or bark mulch to improve water retention. My plants that are growing in full sun are beginning to show signs of stress from lack of consistent rain over the past several summers and from the sudden high temperatures that occurred after our long, cool, damp spring. With our climate under such change, black cohosh growing in the North may need more shade than it has in the past.

Medicinal Uses

Black cohosh was an important medicine for many of the Eastern Woodland Indians, who generously passed their knowledge of this and other plants on to early settlers. The root has long been used for a variety of situations specific to women. Many native women used the root tea during the last two weeks of pregnancy to help prepare the uterus for labor. The root can promote even, regular contractions during labor; a few drops of tincture under a woman’s tongue can help her during labor if she is irritated or exhausted and can ease after-pains following labor. Note: Avoid use of black cohosh if you are pregnant until last two weeks of pregnancy.

Currently the root is being used extensively by women experiencing symptoms related to menopause, such as hot flashes, depression, irritability, fatigue, water retention and vaginal dryness. Black cohosh helps some women who wake in the night and have trouble getting back to sleep. Women who experience premenstrual moodiness that has a brooding, “black cloud” feeling, whether before menstruating or as part of their menopausal journey, have found small doses of a fresh root tincture, 1 to 5 drops under the tongue taken for the duration of the moodiness, to be helpful. Black cohosh tincture is used frequently in Europe instead of estrogen replacement therapies. This herb, along with other herbal and nutritional supplements, is often used by women who have had their ovaries removed surgically.

Black cohosh is used to ease painful menses, pain at ovulation, and to help stop uterine spasms. It helps relax the smooth muscles of the blood vessels and uterus and the skeletal muscles. It also helps dilate the bronchioles, so it helps lessen bronchial spasms and coughs in situations such as bronchitis, pneumonia and pertussis.

Herbalist Matthew Wood uses a small dose of the root tincture for whiplash, neck and lower back pain, tightness and hardness in the trapezius muscles and rheumatism or any feeling of dampness in the joints and muscles. The old Eclectic physicians, practicing in the 19th century, used black cohosh for migraines associated with menses, optic neuralgia, muscle pain associated with influenza, lumbago, and chronic, deep-seated muscle pain. (Herbal Therapy and Supplements, by Merrily A. Kuhn and David Winston, p. 60)

Black cohosh is truly a remarkable medicinal herb and a magnificent plant to consider growing, both for its beauty and to ensure its continued survival. For more information about native medicinal plants that are becoming at-risk in the wild, contact United Plant Savers at PO Box 77, Guysville, OH 45735; phone: (740)-662-0041; fax: (740)-662-0247; www.unitedplantsavers.org/; plants@unitedplantsavers.org. Consider becoming a member of this grassroots, nonprofit organization, which puts out a few fabulous newsletters each year and offers educational programs at its beautiful botanical sanctuary in southeastern Ohio. Loren Israelson, strong supporter of United Plant Savers, wrote: “Frances Thompson, the English poet, once wrote that one could not pluck a flower without troubling a star, what then if we lose a species?”

About the author: Deb is the founder of Avena Botanicals and the Avena Institute in West Rockport, Maine. She also wrote A Woman’s Book of Herbs. You can visit her Web site at www.avenaherbs.com. This article is for information only; please consult a health care practitioner if you have a serious medical problem.



A Note about Black Cohosh

As this article was prepared for press, a study suggested that black cohosh may increase the spread of existing tumors (but not initial mammary tumor development) in genetically engineered mice who were fed the herb for up to 14 months. (“Effects of black cohosh on mammary tumor development and progression in MMTV-neu transgenic mice,” by Vicki L. Davis et al., Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, Penn.

A response to this study, written by a supplier of a standardized extract of black cohosh (Remifemin) and with references to scientific studies about the safety and efficacy of black cohosh, was subsequently published. (“Black Cohosh – The Real Story,” by Andrew Decker, The PR People, at www.prweb.com/releases/2003/7/prweb73024.htm)

If you have questions about black cohosh, please consult your health care practitioner. – Editor

    

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