Related entry: Cimicifuga (U. S. P.)—Cimicifuga
The rhizome and rootlets of the Actaea alba, Bigelow.
COMMON NAMES.—White cohosh, White baneberry, Necklace weed, White beads.
ILLUSTRATION.—Drugs and Medicines of North America, by J. U. and C. G. Lloyd, Pl. XVIII.
Botanical Source.—Actaea alba is a perennial herb, having an erect stem about 2 feet high, bearing two large tri-ternate leaves, the leaflets of which are nearly oval, acute, serrate, and somewhat lobed. The flowers, which are handsome, showy, and white, are borne on a short, compact, oblong raceme with pedicles as large as the general peduncle. The petals are truncate at the apex, equaling the stamens. The fruit is a berry about the size of a cherry-pit, of an ivory white color, with an occasional tinge of red at the apex. These berries range from about 10 to 20 in number.
Description.—The rhizome, which grows just beneath the surface of the soil, is about an eighth of an inch thick, fleshy, knotted, and has many fibrous rootlets. It weighs from 1 to 2 ounces when green. Where the stem joins the rhizome there is an enlargement which is often nearly an inch in thickness. Several offshoots, from 1 to 4 inches long, are given off from the main root. When mature the rhizome is usually decayed at one end and growing at the other. The young rhizome is sweetish, but less so than the mature rhizome which, however, is not so acrid as the former, having but a very faint acridity. The sweet taste is persistent, that of the younger having been compared to that of glycyrrhizin (Lloyd, Drugs and Medicines of North America). The dried is darker than the fresh root, shrunken, very hard, and has a sweet taste. The drug loses three-fourths of its weight in drying.
History and Constituents.—The cohoshes have received their name from the aborigines, who employed them as medicines. According to Barton they used them for rheumatism, but depended more upon their topical than their internal action. They also employed them as emmenagogues and parturients. Actaea alba grows in the rich mold of rocky forests and hillsides throughout the Union, east of the Mississippi. Though pretty evenly distributed, it is nowhere an abundant plant. It blooms in May, about a week later than the red cohosh, and matures its fruit in July and August, several weeks later than the latter. It is frequently found as an adulterant among commercial lots of cimicifuga, but is not considered objectionable, as it undoubtedly possesses properties similar to those of black cohosh.
William Dillmore (1874) found the plant to contain albumen, sugar, starch, gum, and extractive, but neither tannic nor gallic acids. (The A. spicata is said to contain tannin). Two resins were also obtained, one soluble and the other insoluble in ether. Both, however, were dissolved by alkalies. The aqueous liquid, after precipitation of the resins from alcoholic solution, behaved like a solution of saponin. Prof. J. U. Lloyd (Drugs and Medicines of North America), obtained a resin exactly like the purified resin of black cohosh, which was neither acrid nor bitter, differing from Dillmore's resin, which was probably obtained from a drug mixed with spurious roots. Lloyd also obtained a tincture, having a pure, sweet taste, without either acridity or bitterness. Chemically as well as in other ways, this drug differs but little from cimicifuga, but owing to its scarcity as compared with the latter, it will probably never take its place as a medicine.
Action, Medical Uses, and Dosage.—White cohosh is an active agent, and in large doses will produce violent emeto-catharsis. Grave irritation and gastro-intestinal inflammation have resulted from over-doses of the drug. It has been variously classed as alterative, emmenagogue, parturient, narcotic, purgative, and nerve stimulant. It specially acts upon the female reproductive organs, and favors waste and nutrition. The conditions in which it is useful are those of atony, and especially of nervous impairment. Atonic digestive derangements, with a low state of the nervous system, and chronic constipation, are cases for this drug. Its most decisive action, however, is in the disorders of the female organs. It is reputed a good partus preparator, and Dr. W. Fulton (see Specific Medication), accords it a first place in puerperal after-pains, and suggests its employment in uterine congestion and neuralgia. We would add here that it should be selected in debilitated states. It should be thought of in menstrual irregularities and other wrongs, as amenorrhoea, menorrhagia, and dysmenorrhoea. Those ovarian affections, attended with an unpleasant feeling and extreme sensibility to external touch or pressure, are asserted to be improved by its employment. Added to these may be headache, delirium, insomnia, and melancholia. When spasmodic. diseases are due to menstrual wrongs-chorea, epilepsy, hysteria, and other convulsive attacks -the remedy is said to be curative. in leucorrhoea and uterine prolapse it should be used both locally and internally. In general its field of action is quite similar to that of cimicifuga. A peculiar pinkish hue of the part freely supplied by blood, usually associated with menstrual wrongs, is, according to Prof. Scudder (Specific Diagnosis), an indication for this drug, as well as for pulsatilla and helonias.
Dose: Decoction so made as to represent about 30 grains of the root, at one dose. Specific actaea, 1 to 20 drops. For its specific application the following is preferred: Rx Spec. actaea gtt. xx.; aqua fl℥iv. Mix. Dose, a teaspoonful every 1 to 3 hours.
Specific Indications and Uses.—Atony of the nervous system associated with reproductive wrongs, headache, delirium, insomnia, melancholia, and convulsions; uneasy sensations in, and marked sensibility to the touch, or upon pressure, in the ovarian region; pinkish hue of the parts freely supplied by blood. Atonic states only.
Related Species.—Actaea spicata, Linné, Baneberry, Herb Christopher. Elevated parts of Europe, Caucasus, and Siberia. Grows to a height of 3 or 4 feet, having bi- or tri-ternate leaves, an ovoid raceme of white flowers, and glossy-black, juicy berries. The rhizome is blackish-brown, and when fresh has a disagreeable, bitter, acrimonious taste, followed by a sweet after-taste. The odor is nauseous, but when dried the root is nearly odorless. It gives its properties to water and alcohol. The berries are poisonous, causing mental hallucination, gastric irritation, and even death. The green root is violently purgative, resembling black hellebore, but less so when dried, and has emmenagogue properties. A decoction used locally, destroys lice, fleas, and the itch insect. Hens and ducks are killed by the berries, but herbivorous animals eat the plant with impunity. It is sometimes found as an adulterant of black hellebore.
Prof. Scudder (Specific Medication, 59), suggested its use in small doses (Rx Tr. actaea spicata gtt. ij, aqua fl℥ iv. Mix. Dose, a teaspoonful, in diarrhoea, dysentery, some forms of colic, and urinary diseases with tenesmic passages of urine.
Actaea spicata, Linné, var. rubra, Aiton. Red cohosh, Red baneberry. This species inhabits the United States east of the Mississippi river, from Canada southward. It is almost identical in appearance with the Actaea alba, and they can hardly be distinguished from each other unless they are in fruit, though the latter flowers a week or so later than the red cohosh. The fruit of this variety (for it is only considered by botanists as a variety of the European species, Actaea spicata), is a glossy, cherry-red berry, of which the plant bears from 20 to 24. They ripen in early July.It was employed by the Indians under the name of red cohosh. It probably possesses similar properties to those of cimicifuga and the other actaeas. Actaea spicata, var. arguta, Western United States, is another variety.