BLACK COHOSH – Actaea racemosa or Cimicifuga racemosa
Once on a trip to West Virginia, I saw a large stand of white “fairy candles” — black cohosh in bloom. I have photos from that trip that will eventually appear on Herbstory (goldenseal growing wild, echinacea on display at the state fair) but no pics of that black cohosh. Still, I remember it vividly.
Black cohosh, also called bugbane and black snakeroot, is an American native, at one time growing abundantly in woodlands east of the Mississippi, except in the extreme North and South. Early white writers mentioned its use by Indians, calling it “squawroot,” and indeed Cherokee, Delaware, Iroquois, and other Native Americans used the plant for a range of ailments. It is now promoted especially to ameliorate menopausal symptoms.
Botanically-interested travelers brought black cohosh back to Europe early in the 18th century, and it was described in the important botanical and herbal texts of the 18th and early 19th centuries, including those by Johann David Schöpf (1787), Benjamin Smith Barton (1803), Peter Smith (1812), and Jacob Bigelow (1817). When the United States Pharmacopoeia was established in 1820, black cohosh was one of the 217 “most fully established and best understood” drugs that met its criteria for inclusion.
Currently one of the most commonly used medicinal plants in the United States, black cohosh is best known as a women’s herb. A German pharmaceutical company first offered a black cohosh-based commercial product, Remifemin, in 1956, marketing it for menopausal symptoms. Long before that, black cohosh was one of the original ingredients of Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, the leading commercial women’s tonic of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Lydia Pinkham (a local herbalist before her sons turned her into a commercial icon) may have learned of it from John King’s American Dispensatory; King was professor of obstetrics at the Eclectic Medical Institute of Cincinnati, the leading institution of the Eclectic school of botanical medicine, and his Dispensatory was a standard authority on plant-based remedies. Lydia Pinkham might also have found black cohosh described as a women’s remedy in other well-known 19th century American medical books, such as The Dispensatory of the U.S.A. by Dr. George B. Wood and Dr. Franklin Bache, or The Physiomedical Dispensatory by William Cook, MD.
Most of today’s black cohosh supply is wild harvested. Anthropologist Ann Armbrecht discusses the interconnection of plant loss and cultural heritage with respect to black cohosh and other Appalachian natives on her Sustainable Herbs website, which explores the contemporary supply chain for medicinal plants in trade.
RESOURCES NOT LINKED ABOVE
John Uri Lloyd, A Treatise on Macrotys, Drug Treatise No. XIII, 1905. Lloyd Brothers, Cincinnati.
Andrew Pengelly, et al., Black cohosh. Actaea racemosa. Appalachian Plant Monographs, prepared by Tai Sophia Institute for the Appalachian Center for Ethnobotanical Studies, Frostburg State University.