Herb to Know: Black Cohosh

  • Photograph by J. G. Strauch, Jr.

Cimicifuga racemosa
• (Sim-ih-SIFF-you-guh rass-eh-MOE-suh)
• Family Ranunculaceae
• Hardy perennial

The genus Cimicifuga comprises twelve species of erect her­baceous perennial plants that are native to north temperate regions. Black cohosh (C. racemosa), the species probably most familiar to herb gardeners, is a wildflower of moist or dry woods in eastern North America and is also cultivated as an ornamental.

Black cohosh produces clumps of strong stems 3 to 8 feet tall. Large, alternate green leaves are pinnately compound with toothed leaflets. Long, graceful wands of small, starry white flowers held above the foliage bloom from June through September. The flowers have no petals, and the greenish white sepals fall off soon after a flower opens, leaving a tuft of showy stamens surrounding a single pistil. The flowers are thought to be pollinated by green flesh flies.

The generic name Cimicifuga comes from the Latin cimex, a kind of bug, and fugare, “to put to flight”. Bugbane is the English equivalent. Both names refer to the belief that the plants’ strong odor repels insects. Indeed, tops of the “unpleasantly elder-scented” Eurasian species C. foetida used to be dried and stuffed into pillows and mattresses for this purpose. Racemosa means “in the form of a raceme” and refers to the arrangement of individual flowers on an elongated stalk.

The word cohosh comes from an Algonquian word meaning “rough” and refers to the plant’s lumpy blackish rhizomes. An alternate common name, rattletop, refers to the sound of the dry seeds in their pods atop the flower stalks.

Medicinal Uses

Native Americans used the rhizome to relieve menstrual cramps and to ease childbirth, hence another common name—squawroot. Blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides), a wildflower in the barberry family (Berberidaceae), is known as squawroot for the same reason. Black cohosh was an ingredient of Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, a patent remedy for “female complaints” that was popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It has also been used to treat arthritis, coughs, diabetes, tinnitus, dropsy, neuralgia, malaria, yellow fever, and so forth. The alternate common name black snakeroot (C. racemosa is only one of many herbs known as snakeroot) refers to the rhizomes’ use in poultices to treat snakebite.

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