Black Cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa), these days, is a famous menopausal herb. Reputed to stop hot flashes and calm irritation in menopausal women, it is a best selling herb. Of course, what was old has become new again. In 1876, Lydia Pinkham, a herbalist homesteader in Massachusetts introduced Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound. This herbal formula was marketed as a remedy for “female weakness”. Many women found relief from hormonal swings with Ms Pinkham’s formula. The remedy contains several herbs of which Black Cohosh was one of the principal ingredients. Critics of Lydia Pinkham suggested that the high alcohol content in the herbal compound was the real reason for its popularity. In the 1800’s, few women drank openly. The critics felt the formula relieved a woman’s “thirst” for alcohol.
Today, clinical studies conducted in Germany have shown Black Cohosh regulates female hormones via the pituitary gland. The pituitary is the queen of hormones. If the pituitary gland is not happy, no one is. Because of this, herbalists offer Black Cohosh not only to menopausal women but to women of every age who are pushed and pulled by hormonal swings.
Black Cohosh is an elegant perennial with wine coloured feathered leaves. It graces many Central Alberta gardens under the name of Bug Bane. This particular common name refers to the unpleasant odour its long spike of fairy-like white flowers produce. Bugs don’t like the smell. This is also reflected in Black Cohosh’s latin name Cimicifuga . Cimi in latin means bug and fugare means to take flight. However, a quick sniff of Black Cohosh before taking in other flowers that delight the olfactory glands is worth its momentary displeasure. The scent of Black Cohosh clears the sinus increasing the nose’s acuity.
Black Cohosh is not native to Central Alberta. Its natural home is the moist woodlands of Eastern Canada and the US. It will need a lot of water in prairie gardens to bloom. Black Cohosh has entered western herbal medicine via the First Nations of the east. The word Cohosh comes from the Algonquin word for labour. Along with Blue Cohash (Caulophyllum thalictroides), Black Cohosh was used to induce or shorten labour. For this reason, pregnant women should not use Black Cohosh. It will bring on a miscarriage.
Besides bringing on labour and helping to calm hormonal swings, Black Cohosh is a valuable remedy for relieving dull aching pain any where in the body. This is particularly true for pain associated with rheumatoid and osteoarthritis, neuralgia and fibromyalgia.
Black Cohosh relieves pain in three ways. First it has an anti-inflammatory effect, helping the body clean up the debris resulting from the inflammation. Secondly it is calming to the nervous system, reducing the spasms that are often the cause of the pain. For this reason Black Cohosh is also frequently added to formulas for bronchitis and other spasmodic coughs. Finally, Black Cohosh alters perception of pain in the brain. It calms the mind. A calm mind does not feel pain as intensely as an anxious mind.
The root of Black Cohosh contains the medicine. I caution against going out in the backyard and digging up some root for anti-rheumatic tea. Although some herbalists swear by a fresh root tincture of Black Cohosh, I advise against this for herbal dabblers. Black Cohosh belongs to the Ranunculacea family. This is the butter cup family. The plants in this family have very strong medicine and most are too toxic to be of medicinal value. To help the medicine settle, the root is dried before use. In the drying process, the root looses its toxic quality making it good medicine. Prolonged use, over 6 months, of large doses of Black Cohosh is still not advised. Large doses of this plant can cause nausea and headache. In any case, like most plants with strong medicine, Black Cohash has a very repugnant flavour. This will limit the amount of Black Cohosh any one person can take at any given time.
Because of the medicinal strength of Black Cohosh, small amounts of it are generally used in a formula to augment the effects of other herbs. For example, for a teenage girl with menstrual cramps may be given Black Cohash with Cramp Bark (Viburnum opulus). A menopausal woman will find her anxiety decreases with Black Cohosh and Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca). A man with rheumatoid arthritis may find Black Cohosh combined with Angelica (Angelica archangelica) relieves the inflammation and pain.
Black Cohosh is a complex and versatile herb. A plant of beauty and strength that helps the young, the middle aged and the elderly. It is an essential plant in any herbalist’s apothecary.