Black Cohosh Harvest
This week my good friend Nick Fox and I headed out into the falling leaves to harvest Black Cohosh rhizome and root (Actea racemosa, formerly Cimicifuga racemosa). As it is late in the season, much of the green above ground parts have already begun fading into yellows and browns, camouflaging itself among the other fall leaves. But with a concentrated deeper look, we were able to discover some of the changing cohosh leaves co-mingling with the red-orange tulip poplar, the brown oaks and golden beech leaves on the forest floor, indicating to us where we would find some of its roots.
With the above ground parts of the Black Cohosh dying back, the energy of the plant has now gone back under the ground to the root, storing its resources for winter to be able to encourage new green growth in the spring. Because of this cycle, it creates more potent medicine in the root, the part we use as herbalists. This is an ideal time to harvest any root medicine. You can also harvest root medicines in the early Spring, before the above ground parts have grown to their full size.
Black Cohosh is considered an at risk medicinal plant, which means it is currently being over-harvested in its wild environment. Only harvest Black Cohosh in places where the plant population is large and healthy. When selecting plants for harvest, choose mature plants remembering to leave a good selection of immature and mature plants untouched. Replant a section of root from every plant harvested. Cut a 2-3 inch section of root that includes a new bud and rootlets with pruners. Plant at a depth of 2 inches and cover with soil. Top with leaf litter. This practice will ensure that a new plant will grow from the one harvested so as not to deplete a healthy plant population. For more information on harvesting and site selection go to: http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/hort/hil/hil-135.html
Black Cohosh has gained much notoriety in its use as a hormonal regulator and especially for treating symptoms of menopause. It is this use that has ushered the plant into the mainstream and aided in its over-harvest in the wild. Black Cohosh has traditionally been used as a partus preperator (birthing aid) and as an anti-rheumatic for pulmonary conditions like bronchitis and whooping cough. It was also traditionally used for arthritic conditions, which makes sense given its anti-spasmodic properties.
Black Cohosh is popular today as a reproductive tonic. It is useful as an anti-spasmodic for menstrual cramps. It can be used in combination with wild yam, blue cohosh, motherwort and black haw. It is highly effective as a hormone balancer and regulator for issues such as an irregular menstrual cycle, PMS, painful menstruation and for all conditions related to estrogen excess such as fibroids and fibrocystic disease. Black Cohosh is a common alternative to synthetic Hormone Replacement Therapy. It regulates moodiness, anger, hot flashes, sleeplessness and other menopausal symptoms. As a hormonal regulator, the plant has also shown significant ability to reduce bone loss, a serious concern for people experiencing menopause. How exactly Black Cohosh is working on the body to deliver these results is an area of active controversy. Some studies claim that the phytoestrogens bind to the bodies endogenous estrogen sites. Some studies claim that no binding of phytoestrogen is taking place, but rather, Black Cohosh interferes with endogenous estrogens in other ways.
Black Cohosh has a lesser known use that is just as effective as its role as a hormone regulator. As an anti-spasmodic and nervine it is very effective for use in musculoskeletal pain, especially pain in the lower back and shoulders. Good for use in formula for fibromyalgia. The energy of this plant is warming, dispersing and is a mild stimulant.
In the Piedmont of North Carolina, Black Cohosh does not have any look alikes. However, in the mountains do not confuse Black Cohosh with Dolls Eye (Actea pachypoda). The plants can be differentiated by flower arrangement and fruit. Black Cohosh has one or more panicles of long racimes of white flowers and purple berries. Dolls Eye has a low cluster of white flowers that turn into bright white berries with black dots (resembling “dolls eyes”…creepy). Foliage and growth pattern is almost identical and is impossible for even experienced botanists to distinguish.
Use caution when dosing Black Cohosh. Too high of a dose has caused reported frontal lobe headaches in some individuals. However, Black Cohosh can also aid in relieving frontal lobe headaches. Start with .5 to 1 ml of tincture three times a day. Also consult a healthcare professional or experienced herbalist for use in pregnancy. Tincture may be a more effective form of medicine for this plant because tincture will store and last longer than drying the fresh root. Richo Chech in his book Growing At- Risk Medicinal Herbs says the root looses much of its active medicinal properties in the drying process and over time stored as a dry herb. “Choosing the method of extraction that optimizes the total yield of active constituents on a per-plant basis is…plant conservation enhanced by good pharmacy” (Chech, 19).