A perennial herb used for traditional Native health, black cohosh is also called squaw root and snake root. Indian healers used it to help support symptoms of rattlesnake bite. It was a prime ingredient in the 19th-century version of the patent medicine Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound, which was concocted for "female disorders," and still is - although black cohosh isn't listed on the label of the surviving version of Lydia Pinkham's. In Chinese health, black cohosh is called sheng ma.
Potential Health Benefits
Commission E approves black cohosh root as an approach for menstrual discomfort and premenstrual syndrome and as a means of easing the mood swings and hot flashes of menopause. The commission didn't evaluate its useftulness for snakebite or endorse the herb for neurological complaints.
Black cohosh works by suppressing luteinizing hormone and serving as an estrogen replacement. In one study of 60 women under 40 years of age who had had hysterectomies, black cohosh extract proved as potentially useful in helping ease menopause-like symptoms, although Commission E does not recommend using the herb for longer than six months. The only catch was, black cohosh took longer to produce an effect.
Research published in 1991 in the journal Planta Medica and a 1997 study in the Journal of Women's Health reported that the herb has proven effective in supporting menopause. Health writers caution that since black cohosh doesn't contain estrogen, it has no power to help avoid osteoporosis or heart health issues. Still, results so far have been encouraging enough to prompt herbal writer Varro E. Tyler, Ph.D., to write: "Further studies on thcan be useful herb are warranted."
How to Use the Herb
Daily doses of extract, which are taken orally, are set at 40 milligrams by Commission E. Other sources also recommend up to 1 teaspoonful of liquid extract per day.
Cimicifuga racemosa (L.) Nutt.
The genus name (from the Latin cimex, bug, and fugere, to drive away) is derived from the European C. europaea Schipcz. (so-called "C. foetida"), whose strong odor proved useful to repel vermin. The name can be pronounced si-mi-si-fue-ga.
English Common Names
Black cohosh, black snakeroot (less often: fairy candles, rattleweed, rattleroot, bugbane, bugwort, squaw root).
"Cohosh" is Algonquin for "rough," an allusion to the exterior of the rhizome. Blue cohosh is Caulophyllum thalictroides; it can also be used for health benefits, and is discussed in this work. The name "black snakeroot" for Cimicifuga racemosa originates from the use of the black, knotted rootstocks during pioneer times to help support snakebite. Many other plants are called "snakeroot." Members of the genus Sanicula in the Apiaceae are more often called "black snakeroot" than Cimicifuga racemosa. "Seneca snakeroot" also discussed in this work, is another of the many plants called snakeroot. "Virginia snakeroot" or "common snakeroot" is Aristolochia serpentaria L. of the Aristolocbiaceae, which occurs in the eastern United States south of Canada. Sampson's snakeroot, Psoralea psoralioides (Walt.) Cory, a member of the Fabaceae, also occurs south of Canada.
French Common Names
Actée à grappes.
Black cohosh is an attractive herbaceous perennial, 1-2.6 m tall, with compound sharply toothed leaves. In mid- to late summer, branching feathery tapering racemes (occasionally as long as a meter) appear, with small, white, scented flowers blooming successively from the base upwards. The whiteness of the flowers is produced mainly by the white stamens, as the petals are minute and the sepals fall away as the bud opens. The stout, blackish rhizome is cylindrical, hard, and knotty, and older specimens have attached remains of numerous branches. The roots arise from the lower surface of the rhizome. (Note that the term "root" is often interpreted in non-botanical literature as the underground portion of a plant. Rhizomes are underground stems, to which roots are attached; that is, rhizomes are not true roots. Nevertheless, in most Black Cohosh literature the rhizome of black cohosh, the most important medicinal part, is termed root.) The leaves of black cohosh resemble those of the more common baneberries (Actaea spp.), but are without elongate terminal teeth. The elongate nodding inflorescence (over 10 cm long) and the fruit being a follicle, rather than a berry, also distinguish black cohosh.
Classification and Geography
The genus Cimicifuga includes about 15 species of the north temperate zone. Compton et al. (1998) submerge the genus Cimicifuga under the genus Actaea (so that C. racemosa becomes A. racemosa L.). Cimicifuga racemosa is a native of eastern North America, occurring both in Canada and the US. In Canada it is native to a small portion of the Carolinian zone of Ontario, but is cultivated, and occasionally escapes outside of this region. The plant is considered rare in Canada. Five other species of Cimicifuga occur in North America. Cimicifuga americana Michx., bugbane, can also be used for health benefits, but to a lesser extent. It occurs in eastern North America south of Canada, mostly in the Appalachians, and differs in having 3-8 stipitate pistils instead of 1-3 sessile pistils. Cimicifuga elata Nutt, tall bugbane, differing from C. racemosa in usually having nine leaflets instead of more than nine, occurs in SW British Columbia south through Washington to northwestern Oregon. It is the only other species of Cimicifuga found in Canada.
The leaves are deeply incised in C. racemosa forma dissecta (Gray) Fern., which is confined to the state of Delaware (this is recognized by Compton et al. 1998 as Actaea racemosa var. dissecta (Gray) J. Compton). Variety cordifolia (Pursh) Gray, with large and often cordate leaflets 1-2.5 dm long, occurs in the mountains of Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. However, the taxa discussed in this paragraph are very rare, and their status requires study.
A plant of moist or dry deciduous forests, black cohosh is found particularly on rich, wooded slopes. It seems adapted to partially shaded woodland openings and rocky thickets. It grows best in partial shade, in a moist soil with considerable organic matter and a pH of 5.0 to 6.0. Plants grown from seed may not flower until the third or fourth year.
Cimicifuga racemosa is one of the more important traditional health plants. The drug-containing rhizomes and roots are collected in the fall after the fruits have matured and the leaves have died. The rhizome has a faintly disagreeable odor and a bitter, acrid taste.
Black cohosh has been very widely utilized by Indians, who generally boiled the rhizome in water and drank the resulting infusion. In addition to considerable usage to help support female complaints (hence the name "squawroot"), native s used black cohosh for rheumatism, debility, sore throat, and other problems. The whole rhizomes were extracted with whiskey by the early settlers as a herb that can be used for rheumatism. Subsequently, Europeans used black cohosh to help support numerous ailments including diarrhea, bronchitis, measles, whooping cough, tuberculosis, high blood pressure, migraine headaches, neuralgia, joint pain and rheumatism.
Black cohosh is currently used for helping support depression and tinnitus (ringing of the ears), but is best known as a "women's plant" because of its usefulness in supporting menstrual cramps. This herb is a traditional supportive to help support menstrual problems, and facilitate labor and delively. It is claimed to be effective as an alternative to estrogen replacement therapy for some symptoms of menstrual cessation, especially when estrogen replacement is not possible due to a history of uterine fibroids, fibrocystic breast health issues, etc. Extracts have been shown to suppress hot flashes by reducing the secretion of luteinizing hormone. Research has suggested sedative and anti-inflammatory effects, supporting use in support for joint pain and neuralgia. Medical evaluation of other uses of black cohosh is somewhat controversial. It has been considered useful for nerve and muscle pain because it lowers blood pressure and dilates blood vessels.
Cimicifuga racemosa contains triterpene glycosides, resin, salicylates, isoferulic acid, sterols, and alkaloids. Salicylates are the forerunner of aspirin, and their presence in black cohosh provides a rationale for its early use to help support headache.
Black cohosh is a striking garden plant for deep shade landscapes, and is often stocked by plant nurseries for this purpose. With tall stature and coarse foliage, it makes an excellent background plant. A variety of ornamental cultivars have been bred.
Agricultural and Commercial Aspects
Black cohosh is currently used in at least 29 Canadian drug products, with the supply coming exclusively from the wild, mostly from the Blue Ridge Mountains in the Appalachian chain of the US. It is used extensively in parts of Europe and Australia, where several million doses of Remifemin, a formulation of black cohosh, have been employed in recent years.
As a useful plant, black cohosh can be cultivated like other shade-loving, slow-growing woodland useful plants, such as ginseng and goldenseal. Consequently, it represents an interesting crop diversification opportunity. The Canadian populations are at the northern limit of the range of the species, and therefore are deserving of protection as germplasm for future development of a Canadian cultivated crop.
Myths, Legends, Tales, Folklore, and Interesting Facts
Black cohosh was one of the components of "Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound." This mixture was an old-time panacea for what was termed "female weakness" (menstrual discomforts) or "female hysteria" (menstrual complaints). One hesitates to define or question supporting "male hysteria." Lydia's compound is celebrated in verse:
Widow Brown she had no children, Though she loved them very dear; So she took some Vegetable Compound, Now she has them twice a year.
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Take 1 capsule, 3 times daily, with meals.
Should not be used when chronic disease is present or by pregnant women until birth is imminent.
Avoid if lactating.
Commission E cites gastric distress as a side effect, but found no interactions with other drugs. Other sources say the herb can cause headaches and slow the heartbeat. Commission E concludes that pregnant women should not use black cohosh and advises others not to use black cohosh for more than six months.
Overdoses of black cohosh can result in intense headaches, nausea, vomiting, slow pulse rate, dizziness, and visual disturbances. Other possible complications that have been mentioned include abnormal blood clotting, liver problems, and the promotion of breast tumors. It is very strongly advised that consumption of black cohosh be avoided during pregnancy because it can precipitate a miscarriage (indeed, it has been administered to increase the intensity of uterine contractions during childbirth). It has also been recommended that anyone advised not to take contraceptive pills, or with heart disease should not use black cohosh. Treatment with a medicinal plant as potent as black cohosh should be of limited duration and monitored by an experienced physician.
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End of More Photographs - Black Cohosh Root - 450 mg
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