Chapter 21. Cohosh—Black and Blue.
Black Cohosh. Cimicifuga racemosa (L.) Nutt.
DRUG NAME—Cimicifuga or Macrotys.
OTHER COMMON NAMES—Black snakeroot, bugbane, bugwort, rattlesnakeroot, rattleroot, rattleweed, rattletop, richweed, squawroot.
HABITAT AND RANGE—Altho preferring the shade of rich woods, black cohosh will grow occasionally in sunny situations in fence corners and woodland pastures. It is most abundant in the Ohio Valley, but it occurs from Maine to Wisconsin, south along the Allegheny Mountains to Georgia and westward to Missouri.
DESCRIPTION OF PLANT—Rising to a height of 3 to 8 feet, the showy, delicate-flowered spikes of the Black Cohosh tower above most of the other woodland flowers, making it a conspicuous plant in the woods and one that can be easily recognized.
Black Cohosh is an indigenous perennial plant belonging to the same family as the Golden Seal, namely, the crowfoot, family (Ranunculaceae.) The tall stem, sometimes 8 feet in height, is rather slender and leafy, the leaves consisting of three leaflets, which are again divided into threes. The leaflets are about 2 inches long, ovate, sharp pointed at the apex, thin and smooth, variously lobed and the margins sharply toothed. The graceful, spikelike terminal cluster of flowers, which is produced from June to August, is from 6 inches to 2 feet in length. Attractive as these flower clusters are to the eye, they generally do not prove attractive very long to those who may gather them for their beauty, since the flowers emit an offensive odor, which account for some of the common names applied to this plant, namely, bugbane and bugwort, it having been thought that this odor was efficacious in driving away bugs. The flowers do not all open at one time and thus there may be seen buds, blossoms, and seed pods on one spike. The buds are white and globular and as they expand in flower there is practically nothing to the flower but very numerous white stamens and the pistil, but the stamens spread out around the pistil in such a manner as to give to the spike a somewhat feathery or fluffy appearance which is very attractive. The seed pods are dry, thick and leathery, ribbed, and about one-fourth of an inch long, with a small beak at the end. The smooth brown seeds are enclosed within the pods in two rows. Any one going thru the woods in winter may find the seed pods, full of seeds, still clinging to the dry, dead stalk, and the rattling of the seeds in the pods as the wind passes over them has given rise to the common names rattle-snakeroot (not "rattlesnake"-root), rattleweed, rattletop and rattleroot.
DESCRIPTION OF ROOTSTOCK—The rootstock is large, horizontal and knotty or rough and irregular in appearance. The upper surface of the rootstock is covered with numerous round scars and stumps, the remains of former leaf stems, and on the fresh rootstocks may be seen the young, pinkish white buds which are to furnish the next season's growth. From the lower part of the rootstock long, fleshy roots are produced. The fresh rootstock is very dark reddish brown on the outside, white within, showing a large central pith from which radiate rays of a woody texture, and on breaking the larger roots also the woody rays will be seen in the form of a cross. On drying, the rootstock becomes hard and turns much darker, both internally and externally, but the peculiar cross formation of the woody rays in both rootstock and roots, being lighter in color, is plainly seen without the aid of a magnifying glass. The roots in drying become wiry and brittle and break off very readily. Black cohosh has a heavy odor and a bitter, acrid taste.
COLLECTION, PRICES AND USES—The root should be collected after the fruit has ripened, usually in September. The price ranges from 2 to 3 cents a pound.
The Indians had long regarded black cohosh as a valuable medicinal plant, not only for the treatment of snake bites, but it was also a very popular remedy among their women, and it is today considered of value as an alterative, emmenagogue, and sedative, and is recognized as official in the United States Pharmacopoeia.