By Deb Soule
In the early 1980’s while studying the native medicinal plants of North Carolina, I first met Black Cohosh growing wild in the Appalachian Mountains. Its 4-5 foot tall white flowering spires (racemes) were stunning to come upon in the deciduous forests. I immediately took a liking to this plant. A few years later I transplanted two young plants into my garden. Fifteen years later these plants have spread by roots to fill a 13-foot by 15-foot area with over 100 flowering racemes.
Black Cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa) is a hardy woodland herbaceous perennial that appears to be long-lived. It is a member of the Ranunculaceae family. Currently black cohoshes range from the Appalachian Mountain Range across the eastern hardwood forest to the Ozark Plateau and north into the Great Lakes region (USDA, NRCS. 2001).
The deep brown almost black color of the black cohosh stems reminds me of ferns as they uncurl their leaves. The stem is smooth and furrowed and divides into three stems as it grows. The leaves are large and compounded with two or three lobes, double serrated and sharply pointed. The leaves look similar to red baneberry, Actaea rubra, a native to the northeastern, north central and western states.
Many white flowering spires can grow from one mature black cohosh plant and each stalk can contain dozens of individual flowers. The flower buds look like tiny round buttons that open into a flower with several stamens. Once the racemes are in full bloom, they are covered with flies and bees, busily pollinating the flowers. Black cohosh flowers have an unusual smell, some say rather unpleasant or fetid. This smell however attracts the pollinators by the hundreds. When the flowers are in full bloom in my garden, dozens of bees cover each flowering raceme creating a buzzing sound that always draws my attention. Come fall, the racemes are covered with brown seeds that scatter in the wind.
Black Cohosh can be successfully propagated from root cuttings and from seed. It is easy to divide mature, seed-bearing plants by cutting the rhizome/root in the fall with a sharp clean knife.
Each divided rhizome needs to contain a nascent bud and lots of rootlets. This herb prefers to be planted in well-composted, deciduous forest type soil. Space each plant 2 feet apart, either in the shade or a partly shady area. Once planted, cover the soil with rotted leaf mulch or bark mulch to help improve water retention.
I know a few long-term organic gardeners in Maine who have had success propagating black cohosh from their own freshly harvested seed. Despite the racemes producing large amounts of seed, the germination rate tends to be low due to factors such as fungal infection in the seed follicle or surrounding soil, short seed life span, and the specific seed stratification process required.
The seed needs an initial 2-4 weeks of warm temperatures to sprout (Richo Cech says 71 F or 21 C) followed by at least 3 months of cold. (40 F or -4C) In Maine, ripe seeds can be planted in a clearly marked, shaded and protected nursery bed in the late summer or early fall and left for one and a half years. Once the tiny seedlings begin to appear and have their second set of true leaves, they can be carefully transplanted into individual pots and kept in the shade. These seedlings can be planted out into the woods or into a shade garden either in the spring or fall once the plants are two years old.
The thirty black cohosh plants I have growing in full sun are beginning to show signs of stress from the lack of consistent rain over the past several summers and from the sudden high temperatures that occurred after two long, cool and damp Maine springs. With our climate under such change, black cohosh growing in the north may need to grow in more shade than it has needed in the past. I have begun moving most of my plants into a shaded woodland area amongst oak trees and old stone walls.
We harvested 10 pounds of black cohosh rhizomes and roots this fall and made over 3 gallons of fresh root tincture. Black cohosh’s rhizomes grow close to the surface of the soil, making harvesting them easy and fun. For those of us herbalists who have gardens and make medicine for our clients, family and friends, tending a small patch of black cohosh plants from which to harvest is relatively easy, deeply rewarding and an important act for the preservation of this important native medicinal plant.
Black Cohosh was an important medicine for many of the Eastern Woodland Indians. They generously passed their knowledge of this plant, as well as other herbs, to the early settlers. The root has long been used for a variety of situations specific to women. Currently the root is being used extensively by women experiencing various menopausal related symptoms such as hot flashes, depression, irritability, fatigue, water pretension and vaginal dryness. Black Cohosh can be helpful for some women who wake in the night and have trouble getting back to sleep.(in combination with other herbs) Some women who experience premenstrual moodiness that has a brooding, “black cloud” feeling, whether before menstruating or as part of their menopausal journey, have found small doses of a fresh root tincture, 1-5 drops under the tongue taken for the duration of the moodiness, to be helpful.
Black Cohosh tincture is used frequently in Europe instead of estrogen replacement therapies. It is an herb to consider for women who have surgically had their ovaries removed along with using other herbal and nutritional supplements. In my practice, I have found using black cohosh and chaste berry along with two ayurvedic herbs, ashwagandha and shatavari, to be an excellent combination for aiding sleep and improving energy levels and an overall sense of stability and wellness in the midst of changing hormones.
Herbalist Matthew Wood uses a small dose of the root tincture for whiplash, neck and lower back pain, tightness and hardness in the trapezius muscles and rheumatism or any feeling of dampness in the joints and muscles. The old Eclectic physicians, practicing in the 19th century, used black cohosh for migraines associated with menses, optic neuralgia, muscle pain associated with influenza, lumbago, and chronic, deep-seated muscle pain. (Herbal Therapy and Supplements, by Merrily A. Kuhn and David Winston, pg 60)
Loren Israelson, strong supporter of United Plant Savers wrote in a previous issue:
“Frances Thompson, the English poet, once wrote that one could not pluck a flower without troubling a star, what then if we lose a species?” Planting 3-5 seedlings is a great way to ensure its continued survival. Space them two feet apart and after a few years you will begin to see new stems emerging from the spreading rhizomes. Black Cohosh is truly a remarkable medicinal herb and a magnificent plant to consider growing for its beauty and medicine, both for its pollinators and for herbalists.
Deb Soule has been organically growing and wildharvesting medicinal herbs for over 25 years in Maine. She is the founder of the herbal apothecary Avena Botanicals and author of A Woman’s Book of Herbs. Deb tends an acre of medicinal herbs in West Rockport, Maine. Her gardens and apothecary are open to the public. Visit Avena’s website at www.avenaherbs.com.