|Blue Cohosh. Illustration from USDA Miscellaneous Publication No. 77, Washington, D.C, July, 1930. The Herb Hunters Guide – American Medicinal Plants of Commercial Importance, by A.F. Sievers, Senior Biochemist, Office of Drug and Related Plants, Bureau of Plant Industry.|
By Deb Soule
Blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides), a member of the Berberidaceae family, is a long-lived herbaceous perennial that is native to the moist woodlands of the upper Appalachian Mountain Range. This plant is sensitive to light and therefore must grow in the understory, preferably of a mixed hardwood forest. It prefers a slightly acid forest loam (pH 5 to 6) that is moist and cool. I have seen beautiful large stands of several hundred blue cohosh plants growing in the southeastern corner of Ohio and in Vermont, but never in Maine. To come upon a large stand of these plants in the spring, when the bluish-green, lace-like leaves gently quiver in a warm breeze, is absolutely breathtaking and stunning enough to take me to my knees more than once in gratitude and awe.
Blue cohosh is not related to black cohosh botanically. (See the Sept.-Nov. 2003 issue of The MOF&G for my article about black cohosh). The Latin name for black cohosh is Cimicifuga racemosa, and this herb belongs to the Ranunculaceae family. (Cohosh is an Algonquin word meaning “gnarly root.”) In a few places in the North Carolina mountains, I have seen both cohoshes growing close to one another, but these two usually grow in separate locations, because blue cohosh prefers higher elevations.
Occurrence and Cultivation
Blue cohosh is a beautiful plant to consider growing in a wooded area, particularly as it is becoming harder to find in mountainous areas where logging is heavy. Blue cohosh can grow as far north as New Brunswick and as far south as South Carolina, although it is most concentrated in the Allegheny Mountains and southern New England states. Other native woodland plants that often grow in similar environments are the trilliums, goldenseal, true Solomon’s seal, spikenard and Jack-in-the pulpit.
Horticulturist and native woodland plant specialist Heather McCargo has had much success at propagating blue cohosh plants from seed in the Blue Hill region of Maine. The fresh seed must be cleaned of its outer coat before it is planted directly into a prepared woodland nursery bed or shaded flat. The seeds are planted 1/2 inch deep and are mulched with well-rotted leaves. The soil must be kept moist through the long pregermination period. The seeds require a warm/cold/warm/cold treatment that takes anywhere from 500 to 900 days. Patience, trust and well marked flats are needed. After the seedlings emerge, McCargo grows the plants in their flats for another two years, until the plants have created a root-rhizome structure and can be potted or planted directly into a well-prepared woodland garden. The plants should be set 1 to 2 feet apart, and the rhizomes should be kept horizontal, covered with a moderate amount of soil, with the buds above ground.
Blue cohosh does fine in cold winters, as the roots are easily protected by fallen leaves. An abundance of water seems to be one factor that enables large numbers of blue cohosh plants to grow together closely. The golden-brown rhizome, which has lots of rootlets, grows close to the surface. In the spring, a smooth, bluish stalk rises 1 to 2 feet tall and sports panicles of small, star-shaped, yellowish-green flowers. The round, 3- to 5-lobed leaves branch at the top of the stalk. The flowers form pea-sized seeds, which turn royal blue in late summer. When the leaves start to die back in September, you can dig the roots for medicine.
Native American women used blue cohosh root and generously passed their knowledge to the Europeans. Blue cohosh warms and dries the body and benefits women who experience amenorrhea (lack of menstruation) caused by being cold and damp. When the uterus is congested and cold, some of the resulting symptoms include delayed or no menstruation over several months; scant periods; irregular menstruation; lower abdominal cramps with the onset of the period; spastic dysmenorrhea (painful menstruation) at the onset of menstruation; and ovarian and uterine pain associated with congestion and spasms. The antispasmodic and sedative properties of blue cohosh help ease these symptoms. The root is also a uterine stimulant and relaxant, which means it can both move congestion and relax tension and spasms in the female reproductive system.
Women with heavy menstruation may need to avoid this herb, as it can increase blood flow to the pelvis. Too high a dose of blue cohosh tincture may cause nausea, vomiting, muscle weakness, constriction of coronary blood vessels or cardiovascular collapse; therefore blue cohosh should not be used by a person who has angina or cardiac insufficiency.
Blue cohosh has long been used by midwives. It can be used in the first stage of labor, as its oxytocic action induces regular and effective contractions, stimulates ripening of the cervix and helps with pain. Sometimes blue cohosh is mixed with black cohosh root and spikenard root to stimulate labor. Pregnant women who are interested in using herbs during pregnancy and labor should refer to the book list at end of this article for more information. Be sure to discuss the herbs with your midwife or health care provider. Blue cohosh is contraindicated during pregnancy.
Blue cohosh can help people who are bothered by arthritis or joint pain that occurs in the fingers or toes when these joints are first used but gets better with ongoing movement. For this situation, blue cohosh root can be mixed with true Solomon’s seal root and possibly ginger or turmeric root, depending on the person’s constitution. Blue cohosh root needs to be combined with a mucilaginous herb such as true Solomon’s seal if it is being used over several weeks or months, as blue cohosh by itself can be too irritating to the digestive tract.
Blue cohosh is a beautiful woodland plant to consider growing even if you never plan to use it for medicine. The native woodland plants have a presence about them that is unique, unusual and vibrant. If you are interested in learning more about our native woodland medicinal plants that are increasingly at risk, please contact United Plant Savers at PO Box 400, East Barre, VT 05649; Tel. (802) 476-6467; Fax. (802) 476-3722; Email: [email protected]; unitedplantsavers.org/.
Cech, Richo, Growing At-Risk Medicinal Plants, Cultivation, Conservation and Ecology. Horizon Herbs, 2002.
McIntyre, Anne, The Complete Woman’s Herbal: A Manual of Healing Herbs and Nutrition for Personal Well-Being and Family Care. Henry Holt & Co., Inc., 1995.
Romm, Aviva Jill, The Natural Pregnancy Book: Herbs, Nutrition and Other Holistic Choices. Celestial Arts, 2003.
Soule, Deb, A Woman’s Book of Herbs. Citadel Trade, 1998.
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.