Black Cohosh is a tall, handsome perennial herb, native to eastern North America, where it grows readily in a variety of woodland areas. Almost everything known about the value of black cohosh root, as described in the early American materia medica's, came from practices and remedies of Native American peoples. Black cohosh was officially in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia from 1820 to 1936. Preparations containing black cohosh root are still one of the most popular herbs for women's health in North America today.
Cimicifuga racemosa (L.) Nutt.
Botanical Family: Ranunculaceae
Common name: black cohosh
Synonyms: Macrotys, Cimicifuga racemosa, black snakeroot, rattleroot, rattleweed, raiz de cimicifuga (Spanish)
The Plant: Black cohosh is a tall, willowy perennial, up to six feet in height when in flower. The feathery, greenish-white flowers are white and delicately sprinkled along a tall thin wand. Black cohosh flowers have a strong, distinctly sweet smell — both pleasant and a little nauseating at the same time — that is attractive to the plant's pollinators. The hard seeds rattling in their pods in the fall breezes gave rise to the common names rattleweed and rattleroot. The plant can be found growing in semi-shaded woodlands in the eastern United States and Ontario. The roots and rhizomes are harvested in the fall after the plant has gone to seed and these, when dried, comprise black cohosh root.
Black cohosh root was an important herb to many Native American peoples and was soon adopted by settlers as a home remedy. In the 1830s it began to be used by the Eclectic physicians and by the early part of the 1900s, was considered one of their most valuable herbs.
Constituents of Note: There are at least 20 triterpene glycosides (23-epi-26-deoxyactein, actein, cimicifugoside), which are considered the most important constituent group in black cohosh root. Also present are isoflavones, aromatic acids, fatty acids and tannins.
Quality: Black cohosh has a slightly bitter, acrid taste and a faint, sweet, earthy aroma. The roots and rhizomes are a dark grey-brown with a lighter brown interior. The rhizomes have cup-shaped leaf scars on the surface from the stems of prior years. Rootlets are dark brown to almost black, wiry and there may be few or many present.
The most frequent quality problems are the presence of excess dirt and excess stem. It takes care to remove all the excess dirt from the roots of black cohosh, so roots need to be examined carefully. Powdered black cohosh should be tested for dirt using a chemical test called acid insoluable ash. Excess stem is found in black cohosh root when the tough stem stalks are cut too high during root harvest so that they comprise more than five per cent of black cohosh root. Because over 90% of the black cohosh is wild-harvested, black cohosh roots may be inadvertently adulterated with other species of Actaea such as yellow cohosh and baneberry which have similar foliage.
In 2006 the American Herbal Products Association issued a notice that several black cohosh supplements sold in the United States contained Chinese Cimicifuga, a similar herb, but not a substitute for true black cohosh.
Regulatory Status: dietary supplement
Did you know? Botanical names are considered a much more reliable way of identifying a particular plant than common names — there are, for example, at least half a dozen different herbs (including black cohosh) called "snakeroot" — but botanical names can change and be confusing too. Black cohosh demonstrates this well. The previous genus name, Cimicifuga, which we have used until recently, was been changed to Actea, a former name for this plant. Yet another former genus name is Macrotys, so you can see the botanical names for this plant have been almost as changeable as the common names. Literature is slow to catch up to name changes, and old herbals and pharmacopoeias, which are wonderful sources of information on the traditional uses and lore of herbs, use the botanical name current at the time they are written. When searching these old texts (or even the newer ones), it is helpful to know not only the current botanical name, but if there are any prior ones.
Directions: To make a tea, prepare a decoction by simmering one teaspoon of black cohosh root with one cup of water for 10 to 15 minutes.
Suggested Uses: Black cohosh is considered a normalizing and regulating herb for women. It is also soothing to tight and spasming muscles throughout the body. It is often used in tincture form as it does not make a very pleasant tasting tea. Black cohosh root is often combined with such herbs as red raspberry, vitex, motherwort, dong qui and red clover in formulas for older women.
Caution/Safety: The Botanical Safety Handbook* classifies black cohosh as:
Class:2b Herbs not to be used during pregnancy.
Per the German Commission E Monograph** for black cohosh, there are no known contraindications or drug interactions. Gastric discomfort is listed as an occasional side effect.
*Michael McGuffin, ed., American Herbal Products Association's Botanical Safety Handbook, (New York: CRC Press, 1997)
**Mark Blumenthal, ed., The Complete German Commission E Monographs, (Austin TX: Integrative Medicine Communications, 1998