Woodland's Rattle - Black Cohosh

If you are lucky to live near a wood, a walk in the early spring may reward you with a glimpse of emerging red shoots, curled under like fiddleheads. This is the black cohosh. These delicate shoots gradually turn green as the leaflets unfurl and, by early summer, the leaves will have turned a dark green. From this leafy base, flowering wands with few leaves shoot 1-2 metres high and, by late June, feathery plumes of small white blossoms droop gracefully on the tall stalks. This dramatic display lasts 2-3 weeks as the flowers open from the bottom to the top. By fall, seedpods appear, weighing down the stems. When the seeds are ripe, they rattle inside the capsules. At this point they can be cut for use in dried flower arrangements.

Black cohosh, native to North America, grows in moist shady woodlands. Common names include: rattle box (remember those seedpods), black snake root, squaw root, and bugbane. It adapts readily to gardens (zones 4-7) thriving in the shade but also performing well in the sun, given enough moisture. Clumps may be grown, undisturbed for many years, once established. To raise plants from seed, like other members of the buttercup family (ranunculaceae), a short period of moist warmth (20 degrees C) followed by a longer period of moist cold (5 degrees C) is required for germination.

Sow the seeds in flats outside, where they will be naturally stratified over the winter. Use a mix of equal parts of peat, perlite, and sand, then top off with a light covering of sand.

Once the seedlings emerge, they are sturdy and fast-growing, reaching 15-20 centimetres in the first season. In the fall, they should be transferred to 10cm pots for the second year, after which they will be ready to assume a permanent position in the perennial border. Black cohosh combines well with other perennials, especially Solomon's seal (polygonatum), bleeding heart (dicentra), and hostas.

The plant produces a thick blackish rhizome (underground creeping stem) that is hard and knotty. Collect it in the fall after the top dies down, cut into pieces, and dry. The taste is bitter, pungent, and stringent, and the odour is slightly nauseous. This root contains a resin known as cimicifugin, starch, gum sugar, and astringent tannic acid. Therapeutic effects include the following: antispasmodic (relief of nervous irritability and reduction or prevention of excessive involuntary muscular contractions), alterative (changes the existing nutritive and excretory processes and gradually restores normal body functions), emmenagogue (female corrective to the reproductive organs, stimulating and promoting normal menstrual function), diuretic, astringent, arterial and nervine sedative, cardiac tonic, and antiseptic antivenom. Preparation of the root of black cohosh for medicinal use is usually a decoction.

Pour a cup of water onto 1/2-1 teaspoon of dried root and bring to boil. Let it simmer for 10-15 minutes. Drink thrice daily. The tincture should be made from fresh or recently dried root; 50gm to 250ml of alcohol (90 per cent proof). Take 5-15 drops four times daily.

Cimicifuga has a very long history of successful treatment of gynecologic complaints and in obstetrical practice. It helps relieve menopause discomforts, especially hot flashes. It may be used in cases of painful or delayed menstruation, cramping pains, breast pains, migraine of hormonal origin, and estrogen deficiency. It has been used extensively during childbirth. Where the pains are ineffectual or irregular, cimicifuga will stimulate to normal action. It is the best and the safest agent known for relief of after-pains, and it has a restorative effect on the nervous system after labour.

According to Dr. John R. Christopher, black cohosh slightly depresses the heart rate while it increases the force of the pulse and equalizes circulation. It is a cardiac tonic par excellence. It is very active in the treatment of rheumatic pains, sciatica, lower back pain, facial and intercostal neuralgia, stiff neck, aches after strenuous exercise, and tinnitus.

A good treatment for arthritis consists of equal parts of black cohosh, cayenne pepper, yarrow, burdock root, freshly dried parsley and white willow bark. Grind all the herbs to a find powder, mixing thoroughly and fill #00 capsules. Take 1-2 capsules thrice daily.

Native North American peoples knew of black cohosh for relieving pain during menstruation and used it extensively during childbirth. They used the bruised root as an antidote for snakebite by applying it to the wound, and the juice, in very small amounts, was taken internally. Some also claim that native peoples used it with success for yellow fever. Black cohosh also figures prominently in the materia medica of traditional chinese medicine, where, often combined with blue cohosh, it is employed in the treatment of arthritis and rheumatism. Together with mullein and lobelia, it makes a very effective liniment for swollen joints and aches and pains.

The multi-talented Cimicifuga racemosa is worthy of a prominent place in the garden. It provides valuable medicine in a dramatic package, managing to treat both the body and the soul. No small feat!

Researchers have isolated chemical derivatives mimicking the effects of estrogen that could be used to treat female ailments.

Black cohosh also contains the glycoside acetein, a steroidal derivative effective in lowering blood pressure in animals. No research is available to verify the same claim in humans. But research supports its use as a sedative and anti-inflammatory.

A herbal tea mix of ginger, chamomile, raspberry leaf, and black cohosh has been used by women to ease or trigger the menstrual flow, ease difficult labour at childbirth, and relieve problems associated with menopause.

Consuming extremely large amounts of black cohosh is dangerous and could cause nausea, dizziness, and vomiting. It should not be used by pregnant women since it could cause premature birth. Always consult a reliable health professional.

Black cohosh was introduced into European gardens as early as 1732, cultivated in England at Sherard's Garden at Eltham. A specimen was established in the Chelsea Physic Garden by 1737. (T. Nesselhut, C. Schellhas, R. Dietrich, V. Kuhn. Archives of Gynecology and Obstetrics, 1993, 817-818.)

A much showier plant than the native species of Europe, black cohosh was soon adopted as a hardy herbaceous ornamental. To this day, it is still more dominant in perennial borders in European gardens than it is in North America. A number of cultivated varieties are offered in the nursery trade. (J. Freudenstein, C. Bodinet Influence of an isopropanolic aqueous extract of Cimicifugae recemocae rhizoma on the proliferation of MCF-7 cells. Abstracts of 23rd International LOF-Symposium on Phytoestrogen, University of Gent, Belgium, January 1999.)

Contrary to the 1989 German Commission E monograph on black cohosh and other previously reported papers, it is now known that black cohosh does not have an estrogenic effect. (Conclusion of an article Black Cohosh: cimicifuga racemosa. Literature Review by Steven Foster published in HerbalGram no. 45, Winter 1999:35-50)

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