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.
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.
In overdose – and a very small quantity can be an overdose – belladonna is one of the strongest poisons among plant medicines. Preparations made from it can be so deadly that it is rarely mentioned in herbals, except with severe messages of caution. Elizabethan herbalist John Gerard described children poisoned by the sweet, shiny black berries, and advised readers in 1597 to “banish therefore these pernicious plants out of your gardens and all places neare to your houses where children or women with child do resort.” Contemporary herbalists often quote Gerard, and many just omit the plant from their books, as did Nicholas Culpeper, whose 1653 Complete Herbalhas probably gone through more editions than any other book on medicinal plants.
But at one time, belladonna was an important medicine. Nineteenth-century drug catalogs offer preparations of both leaves and roots, as infusions, vinegars, syrups, alcohol tinctures, oils, ointments, poultices, and solid extracts. Belladonna was widely used in plasters — transdermal patches made of cloth spread with belladonna extract mixed with waxes, oils, gums, resins, and Robert Wood Johnson‘s innovation, rubber. Some medical journals reported undesired systemic effects from belladonna plasters, and they fell out of fashion along with plasters of all kinds, but you can still buy them online.
The brownish purple plant, which grows wild in Europe and east to Central Asia, is about three to five feet high, with branched stems and bell-shaped flowers. Its botanical name, Atropa belladonna, juxtaposes the Greek goddess Atropos, the Fate whose assignment was to cut the thread of life, with the Italian for “beautiful lady,” usually attributed to medieval women said to have used small quantities as a beauty regimen, to dilate their pupils, though other derivations have been proposed. My mother used the common name, “deadly nightshade,” to refer to Solanum dulcamara, more commonly called bittersweet or woody nightshade, a related plant that grew in the sidewalk cracks near our Pittsburgh home; “deadly nightshade” is also used for Solanum nigrum or black nightshade, another common North American weed. Atropa belladonna itself is rare in the United States.
All the nightshades belong to the Solonacae family, which encompasses thousands of species of flowering plants, many of which humans have used, abused, and traded for millennia. Tobacco is in this family, along with potatoes, eggplants, tomatoes, peppers, petunias, and such powerful hallucinogens as mandrake (used medicinally by the Romans and as an aphrodisiac in Shakespeare) and datura, the thorn apple or Jimson weed noted for its striking trumpet-shaped flowers. Some folklorists believe that European witches employed belladonna and other solonacaeae in their formulas for a hallucinogenic “flying ointment;” one scholar suggests that witchcraft accusations may have been provoked by the convulsions and deaths of cows who ate belladonna.
The power of these plants — and of many others — comes from alkaloids, organic compounds containing nitrogen. Many alkaloids have toxic effects on other organisms, and they are thought to have evolved in order to keep predators from eating the plant. For people, they serve as drugs. We can recognize the names of alkaloids by the chemical suffix “ine” — as in morphine, codeine, nicotine, mescaline, quinine, cocaine, and many others.
Belladonna and related plants are known for the tropane alkoloids, which include atropine, scopolamine, and hyoscyamine. These have powerful effects on the nerves, and cause dry mouth, dilated pupils, loss of muscle control, urinary retention, hallucinations, convulsions, coma, and death. Because it was such a powerful plant, scientists investigated it early. German chemists isolated the alkaloids beginning in 1819, and in 1833 the great chemist Justis von Liebig determined the formula for atropine: 34 carbon atoms, 28 hydrogen, 6 oxygen, and 1 nitrogen.
In very small dosages, tropane alkoloids are effective in allergic reactions and chemical poisoning. Scopolamine and atropine have long been used by eye doctors to dilate the pupils. They are effective against vomiting for motion sickness or chemotherapy. The belladonna alkaloids are anodyne (relieve pain), sedative, and antispasmodic. Applied to the skin as a plaster, liniment, or ointment, belladonna reduces pain by paralyzing nerve endings rather than by affecting the brain or the spinal cord, as morphine does.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, belladonna and its alkaloids were proposed as an antidote to opium, to induce delirium and obscure the effects of withdrawal. It was also proposed as a cure for alcoholism, most famously by New York’s Towns Hospital, where Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill W. was a patient. Both atropine and scopolamine, including products labeled as eye drops, are currently recommended by some hospice manuals, and included in the kits hospice services supply to families for emergency situations when a nurse is not available.
As of 1894, when Johnson & Johnson published a 72-page booklet about the plant and its medicine, belladonna was not cultivated in North America. It arrived in bales from abroad, and was powdered by wholesale druggists, who sold the powder to pharmacists and physicians. By 1905, Johnson & Johnson was cultivating it on a large scale, in an experiment that pharmacist John Uri Lloyd described as “exceedingly promising.” The US Department of Agriculture began experimenting with it during the summer of 1909, testing for alkaloidal content in various locations over the next several years. By 1913, European wild supplies were exhausted, and prices had risen thanks also to the difficulties of shipping during World War I. In 1916, the University of California Agricultural Experiment Station promoted it for commericial agriculture, and domestic production was established in a number of places by the end of the war. By 1938, according to the report of a WPA project conducted at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, two-thirds of American consumption was domestically produced and “Probably more belladonna is grown in the United States than any other drug plant.”