Black Cohosh is a striking perennial herbaceous plant in the Ranunculaceae family native to North America that can reach up to 10 feet tall. It’s found on hillsides in woodland areas at higher elevations between Maine, Southern Ontario, Wisconsin, Missouri, and Georgia. It has creeping, knotty black rhizomatous roots, smooth stems, large, alternating tripinnately compound leaves with irregularly toothed ovate to oblong leaflets, and long racemes of multiple small white flowers that bloom during the summer with a sickly sweet almost medicinal smell. The flowers have no petals and no sepals, just clusters of stamens surrounding a single white stigma, and is pollinated by flies, gnats, and beetles. It’s grown easily from seed in the springtime, or by root division in either spring or fall and prefers dependably moist, fairly heavy soils. The roots are harvested in the autumn after the fruits have ripened, cut lengthwise, and dried. This plant, especially in it’s burgundy to purple colored variety atropurpurea, is a popular and quite stunning in landscape and garden design.
Black Cohosh is an emmenagogue, anti-spasmodic, alterative, diaphoretic, and a sedative. Not only is it useful as a powerful relaxant and normalizer of the female reproductive system, it helps to regain normal levels of hormonal activity in the female system and bring on delayed menstruation. It can ease cramping in the uterus and ovaries, making it a great ally for pms and menstrual cramps, and has similar anti-inflammatory actions on muscle pain, nerve pain such as in sciatica and neuralgia, and rheumatic joint pain in cases of arthritis. These actions also ease spasms, making it useful in painful conditions of the lungs such as bronchitis, asthma, and whooping cough. It is a useful herb during labor to calm the nerves while supporting the uterus during the birthing process. As a parturient herb, it is quite useful to support the uterus in the last few weeks of pregnancy, especially when combined with squaw vine and raspberry leaf. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, Black Cohosh is used more for it’s cooling, diaphoretic properties and ability improve blood circulation, clear fevers, detoxify the blood, lower blood pressure, raise the chi and counteract prolapsed conditions. It’s often prescribed for painful menses, and to bring out and ease skin conditions such as measles. It has also been shown useful in estrogen replacement therapy, with the women showing no significant side effects. It is also used in the treatment of tinnitis.
Cohosh is an Algonquin word meaning “rough”, referring to the dark knobbly root of the plant. Black Cohosh was first used by the Algonquins, prepared as a decoction, to treat problems of the female reproductive system and to aid recovery after childbirth. It was also used to treat fatigue, sore throats, arthritis, and rattlesnake bites – hence it’s other common name, Snakeroot. It was made popular in early American herbals in the 19th century by Lydia E. Pinkham, who created “Lydia E. Pinkhams Vegetable Compound”, touted to treat pms, menstrual cramps, and menopausal complaints. It was used by eclectic physicians for fevers, rashes, malaria, insomia, and “hysterical complaints” (ahem, forbid you say “gynecological issues”). Small doses of Black Cohosh are useful for treatment in diarrhea in children.
As a decoction, one cup of water per 1/4 teaspoon of the herb, simmered 10-15 minutes, taken three times daily, or as a tincture 2-4ml three times daily. For uterine problems, combine with Blue Cohosh. For rheumatic problems, combine with Bogbean. Pregnant women should avoid this herb. Estrogen, and presumably most estrogenic herbs such as Black Cohosh, can stimulate the growth of breast cancer. Black Cohosh does not appear to have this effect, but breast cancer survivors and those with a history of breast cancer in their families should be cautious when using this and other estrogenic herbs.
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