Cimicifuga Racemosa. Black Snakeroot.

Plate 21. Cimicifuga racemosa. Parts used - Botanical analysis - Common names - Botanical description - Botanical history - Forms - Geographical distribution

PARTS USED.—The rhizomes and roots of Cimicifuga racemosa Elliott.

Natural Order Ranunculaceae, Tribe Helleboreae.

BOTANICAL ANALYSIS.—Rhizome knotted and matted, black, thick, branched, marked with scars of fallen stems and leaf stalks. Stem erect, four to eight feet high, unbranched, smooth, furrowed, bearing one or two large leaves near the center. Leaves large, tri-ternately compound, alternate, borne on short, clasping petioles. Leaflets ovate, acute, two to three inches long, thin, smooth, more or less two or three lobed, borne on short stalks; margins sharply and doubly serrate. Flowers very numerous, white, borne in a terminal, branching, spike-like raceme. Pedicels bracted, horizontal, slender, about a fourth of an inch long. Sepals four or five, white, concave, caducous. Petals represented by a few slender two-forked organs, resembling abortive stamens, and easily overlooked. Stamens numerous, showy, with slender filaments, and globular, white anthers. Pistil solitary, white, sessile, smooth; ovary, one-celled, about ten-ovuled; stigma, sessile, on the ventral side of the summit. Fruit, a dry, ovoid follicle, ribbed, dehiscing along the ventral suture, and filled with triangular seeds, arranged in two rows.

COMMON NAMES.—The Pharmacopoeia recognizes the name Black Snakeroot as the proper common name for the plant. In the drug trade it is known either as Black Snakeroot or Black Cohosh. The plant was one of the many reported cures for the bite of the rattlesnake, hence the name Snakeroot, and black from the color of the rhizome. The name Cohosh is an Indian name. [The name Cohosh is now applied to four plants (see note, page 232). Its meaning we have so far been unable to ascertain. it seems to have been originally applied by the Indians to Caulophyllum thalictroides, and we hope that we shall be enabled to throw more light on its meaning by the time we come to consider the plant.] The dry pods of the plant, which remain during the greater part of winter, contain loose seed that rattle with the wind. On this account, probably, the plant is called Rattleweed, Rattleroot, and Snakeroot.

The names Rattlesnake Root and Blacksnake Root, as they are sometimes spelled, are probably improper spellings of the names Rattle Snakeroot and Black Snakeroot.

The following names for Black Snakeroot are sometimes found in medical works but should not be used. Bugwort and Bugbane, often applied to the American plant, are borrowed from the European species of Cimicifuga, and are not applicable to our plant. [See note 9 on page 248.]

Squawroot, sometimes used, more properly belongs to the Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides), to which plant it is referred by the majority of writers.

Richweed is a name given to Cimicifuga racemosa as early as 1762, by Gronovius, and is applied to it by some of the very earliest writers. It is now used by botanists to designate a very different plant (Pilea pumila) which has no place in medicine.

BOTANICAL DESCRIPTION.—Cimicifuga grows in rich woods, generally on hill sides, and is usually abundant. While its natural habitat is shady localities it will remain for a number of years growing in sunny places, such as fence corners of cleared ground and in woodland pastures.

The rhizome is large, knotted, horizontal, and is found from four to six inches below the surface (see Plate XXIII, opposite page 257).

Each rhizome sends up one or two flowering stalks and several large, radical leaves. The leaves are tri-ternately compound and very large; the radical and lower stem leaves are usually two to three feet across. The leaflets are about three inches long by two wide, ovate, acute, and with margins sharply toothed.

The stem is erect, from six to eight feet high, and at the base, half an inch thick. It is smooth, somewhat flattened below, and angular near the top. It does not branch below the flowers. Usually it bears three leaves; a large one on a long stalk from near its base, another large one near the middle; and a small one about a foot below the flower. Our illustration (Plate XXI), represents the stem cut off just below the upper, small leaf.

Cimicifuga blooms from the latter part of June in southern localities to the fore part of August in northern stations. July is the month in which the flowers appear over most of the territory. When in bloom the plant is a most conspicuous and showy object in woods and woodlands; its slender wands of white flowers can readily be distinguished even at a distance.

Fig. 82. A branch of a raceme of Cimicifuga racemo... Each plant ends in a compound raceme of white flowers. The raceme usually has two branches, the lower longer, though in vigorous plants as many as four are sometimes developed.

The branches of the raceme proceed from the main stem an inch or two below the bottom flower, and ascending for three or four inches, they then become vertical and parallel with the main stem, and distant about two inches from it. As in all racemes, the flowers develop upward from the lowest. Fifteen to twenty flowers are expanded at a time.

Fig. 83. A flower of Cimicifuga racemosa. The individual flowers are about half an inch wide and are placed nearly contiguous though not crowded on the stem. They are borne on slender pedicels which are minutely bracted at the base. The pedicels are a quarter of an inch long and horizontal or slightly ascending.

The flower buds are nearly globular, and on their short but slender pedicels look not unlike large-headed pins. They have five concave, imbricated, white sepals which enclose and protect the stamens in the bud, but fall away as the flower opens.

Fig. 84. A pistil of Cimicifuga racemosa. The expanded flower has no floral envelopes, and consists of a pistil and very numerous stamens. [A close examination will detect a few small, slender, claw-shape organs which represent petals, but they are so rudimentary that they need not be mentioned in a popular description of the flower.] The stamens indeed are the conspicuous part of the flower, and are almost pure white, both filaments and anthers. The white, ovoid pistil in the center of the flower is about half the length of the stamens. It is rounded at the base and sessile on the pedicel. [Several of our correspondents have called our attention to the apparent error in both Gray's Manual and Wood's Class Book in describing the ovary as sessile. The meaning is not that the ovary is sessile on the main stalk, but that it is sessile on the pedicel in contra-distinction to the ovaries of other species of Cimicifuga which have stipitate bases.] After flowering, the short, slender pedicel becomes ascending. The fruit is an ovoid, dry capsule about a quarter of an inch long, with thick, leathery ribbed sides. It opens by splitting down the inner suture at the top. Often the capsule is twisted on its pedicel so that the opening is outward. It is filled with eight to ten angular, brown seed. The dry fruit pods often remain on the dead stalk throughout the winter and rattle with the wind, hence one of the common names for the plant is Rattleweed.

Fig. 85. A section of the fruiting stalk Fig. 86. A single capsule of Cimicifuga racemosa. BOTANICAL HISTORY.—Cimicifuga is a very conspicuous and showy plant when in bloom, and hence was noticed by the earliest travelers in America, [A specimen collected by Fisher, in Maryland, nearly two hundred years ago, is still preserved in the Solander Herbarium in the British Museum.] and carried to the botanical gardens of Europe early in the last century. [The first cultivation of the plant in England appears to have been in Sherard's Garden, at Eltham, about 1732. It was described in the first edition of Dillenius' Hortus Elthamensis.
It was growing in the Apothecary's Garden, at Chelsea, as early as 1737. A specimen is preserved in the British Museum which was grown in the Garden and collected in that year.]
It was first described by Plukenet, [Plukenet was an ardent botanical collector who lived in the latter part of the seventeenth century. He made a very large herbarium for his time, which in addition to the native British plants, included a large number of foreign specimens obtained by correspondence and from the botanical gardens.
The Almagestum Botanicum was a publication intended as a catalogue of his collection, with description of the new plants, and the Amaltheum Botanicum was the third volume, or rather a continuation of this work.
We are indebted to Dr. Charles Rice for the following lucid explanation of the word Almagestum:
"Claudius Ptolemaeus, the celebrated geographer, astronomer and mathematician of Ptolemais Hermion in Upper Egypt, contemporary of Antoninus Pius (died 161 A. D.), among other important works, wrote a 'Grand Treatise on Astronomy,' μεγαλη συνταζις της αστρονομιας in thirteen books, which work remained the standard authority up to the middle age. Owing to the gradual decline of general education and knowledge in the time preceding the reformation, the work remained almost unknown, in its original language (Greek), but was duly appreciated by the inquiring and studious Arabic scholars, who, recognizing its great value, translated it, and it is in its Arabic version, and Latin translations from this, that the work first became known in Europe. The title of the work, in Arabic, is Al-majistî, or Al-mijistî, or Al-majustî [best spelled Al-mejistî], the 'al' being the Arabic article, and 'mejistî' being the Arabicised Greek word μεγιστη (megistë) 'greatest', the Arabs having converted the positive μεγαλγ great, into the superlative μεγιστγ greatest. Several later Arabic authors, to give some special éclat to their own works, treating of similar subjects, chose the same title 'Al-majistî.' But when Almagest is mentioned, without reference to other writers, the work of Ptolemy is usually meant. Similarly, many European authors of former times were fond of using the word. To them it had gradually acquired the meaning of 'Grand Storehouse [of],' 'Cyclopedia [of],' etc., and so we have Almagestum Botanicum and other similar works."
As Plukenet lived at the time when new plants were pouring to England from this country, his publications are specially rich in descriptions of American plants. Cimicifuga he classed with the Actaea spicata of Europe, and using the old generic name for this plant called it "Christophoriana facie, Herba spicata, ex Provincia Floridana." He accompanies his drawing with a crude cut of the plant, inaccurate but yet sufficiently true to establish the identity. His original specimen of the plant is still preserved in his herbarium in the British Museum. (Liriodendron: back)]
and rudely figured in his Amaltheum Botanicum, 1705. Several other pre-Linnaean writers mentioned the plant, and all classed it with Actaea, mostly under Tournefort's name, Christophoriana, [This is a generic name given by Tournefort to the Actaea spicata of Europe. See page 236.] and designated it with specific adjectives indicating its long raceme or spikes.

When Linnaeus first specifically named plants, in his Species Plantarum (1753), in common with previous writers, he included this plant with Actaea, to which it is very closely allied in habit, appearance, properties, flowers, etc., and called it Actaea racemosa.

Fig. 87. A seed of Cimicifuga racemosa. At that time but two of the species that now constitute the genus Cimicifuga (viz., the plant under consideration, and Cimicifuga foetida of Eastern Europe), were known. Had Linnaeus made a genus for these two he would have had a genus containing two plants belonging to entirely different orders of his artificial system. He did in after years separate the European species from Actaea under the generic name Cimicifuga, [Derived from cimex, the generic name for the bed-bug (Cimex lectularius), and fugare, to drive away. The European species for which the genus was established is a very fetid herb, and is used to drive away insects just as pennyroyal (Hedeoma pulegioides) is used in this country.] but he did not include our plant in that genus.

The Linnaean name, Actaea racemosa, was retained till the beginning of the present century by all writers excepting Walter, who called the plant Actaea monogyna. [Viz., one-pistilled.]

It was Pursh who first referred it to the genus Cimicifuga which Linnaeus had established for the European plant. Michaux had previously referred to this genus, our mountainous species (Cimicifuga americana) which he discovered. Pursh, in addition to this species, having seen our northwestern species (Cimicifuga elata, that he considered identical with the European species, Cimicifuga foetida), noticed the great similarity of the three plants, and placed them all in a common genus. The plant under consideration he called Cimicifuga Serpentaria. [As this is the first time the plant was referred to the genus where it has finally remained, Pursh's name should be used if the rule of priority alone determined it. Nuttall's name, however, is more appropriate, besides being the specific name used by all previous writers, and it is well that it is adopted.]

Four years later, Nuttall in enumerating the then known plants of the United States, restored the old specific name, calling it Cimicifuga racemosa. In the same year, Barton (but after the publication of Nuttall's work, as is evident from his mentioning the work,) used the same name, evidently taken from Nuttall's work, but without giving him credit for it. [This was not an intentional appropriation of another's ideas. It was not the custom with Elliott, Eaton and several of the old writers to give, in many cases, authority for specific names.] Hence De Candolle and several other writers have incorrectly referred the authorship to Barton. It is remarkable, however, that in all the works of both Torrey and Gray, and in most recent works on American botany, the authorship of the name has been credited to a botanist (Elliott) who did not use the name until six years after it was published by both Nuttall and Barton, and that this same error should have been made in the last very carefully prepared edition of the United States Pharmacopoeia of 1880.

Fig. 88. Fruit of Cimicifuga racemosa. Fig. 89. Fruits of typical Actaea and Cimicifuga. The following are the distinctive characters between the two genera, Actaea and Cimicifuga, as established by Linnaeus. They are drawn entirely from the fruit, as there is no other point of distinction.

Fruit, a solitary, fleshy berry.
Fruit, five (or four) dry follicles.

It will be seen that Cimicifuga racemosa does not accord with either genus as defined by Linnaeus, as the fruit is a dry follicle but solitary. On this account Rafinesque proposed to establish for it a new genus, Macrotrys, [From μαχρος large, and βοτρυς a bunch, referring to the large raceme of fruit.—Eaton.] calling the plant Macrotrys actaeoides. (Medical Repository, 1808). [This was merely an announcement. See our note, on page 192.]

There is really some structural ground for Rafinesque's genus, because the plant differs from all others of the genus Cimicifuga as follows; but there is, however, such close relationship in every other particular that this difference can not be considered sufficient for maintaining the plant in a separate genus. (See Fig. 88, and Fig. 89, b.)

Follicle abrupt at the base, solitary, ovoid, seeds smooth, numerous, stipitate. Seed rough with slender projections.
Follicles five (or four), flattened, compressed horizontally.

In 1828 Rafinesque changed his generic name to Botrophis, [Derived from βοτρυς a bunch, and οφις a snake.
He gives his reasons for the change, as follows: "The name Macrotrys is delusive and harsh. I have framed a better one, meaning snake raceme, the raceme or long spike of flowers being mostly crooked and like a snake."]
calling the plant Botrophis Serpentaria.

But one other American botanist has ever followed Rafinesque's generic views. Eaton, in the fourth edition of his manual adopted them, but used Pursh's specific name, calling the plant Macrotys Serpentaria. In subsequent editions he used the old specific name and called it Macrotys racemosa.

Eaton was very positive regarding the rights of the plant to generic rank. [On this subject he says: "I retain this genus for the species racemosa. I yield to authorities in most cases, but in this case I can not submit to the absurdity. No one can be better acquainted with Cohosh than myself." Had Eaton confined the name to this species there would have been some excuse for his method, but to apply it to the other American species as he did was a most glaring blunder.] He spelled the name, however, incorrectly—Macrotys instead of Macrotrys, an error that was made by De Candolle, from whom Eaton no doubt took it.

About the time that black cohosh was beginning to be used by the Eclectic practitioners Eaton's Manual was the popular text book of botany. Hence it is that his name, Macrotys racemosa, was given to the plant in the early medical works, and has persistently clung to it in spite of botanical authority, even to the present day, and will probably always be used.

FORMS.—Cimicifuga racemosa has but little tendency towards variation. Specimens from a number of widely distant stations show a constancy of character.

In central Pennsylvania there exists two plants which are distinguished by root gatherers as the tall and small snakeroots. We are indebted to Kate F. Kurtz for specimens of the tops and rhizomes of both plants. A close examination, however, shows us no difference except in development. The fresh rhizome of the tall plant is much larger and darker colored, and the roots coarser. We can only consider this plant a robust form.

Fig. 90. A leaflet of the dissected form In collecting near Faulkland, Delaware, Mr. A. Commons found a few remarkable specimens, perhaps only sports, growing in a patch of perfectly normal plants. He transferred some rhizomes to his garden where they have since grown, and every year maintain their peculiar characteristics. The leaflets are much divided, in fact pinnatified. The accompanying drawing of a single leaflet will exhibit their peculiarity.

GEOGRAPHICAL DISTRIBUTION.—Cimicifuga is a most abundant plant over the greater portion of the territory east of the Mississippi. The only part where it is usually absent, excepting the extreme south, is most of Illinois and Wisconsin and the New England States. The center of its most abundant occurrence is Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. It extends south throughout all the Allegheny range, and over the States of Kentucky and Tennessee. It becomes scarce in western and northern Indiana, and absent from Illinois, excepting a few southern stations. In southern Missouri it is again found abundant, growing throughout the Ozark Mountains. In the southern half of Michigan it is often found, though not a common plant, and it is scarcer still in the southern point of Ontario. New York has it common in the southern tier of counties bordering Pennsylvania; in the regions of the small lakes it is a rare plant; and in the eastern and northern part of the State it is entirely absent, except a few isolated stations south of Lake Champlain.

In New England it is almost entirely absent. At rare intervals a few specimens are found not a great distance from the ocean, or in the valley of the Connecticut river, or bordering Lake Champlain, but in all instances the number of plants is limited and the find considered of great interest. Not over a dozen stations are known for the plant in the entire New England States.

Plate 22. Map showing the distribution of Cimicifu... Map showing the distribution of Cimicifuga Racemosa.

The centre of distribution is the Ohio Valley. The shading on the map represents very accurately, the occurence of the plant and its abundance.

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Drugs and Medicines of North America, 1884-1887, was written by John Uri Lloyd and Curtis G. Lloyd.