What is Black Cohosh?
Black cohosh has two latin names. The original one was Cimicifuga racemosa. It was classed with about 17 plants whose smell was thought to repel bugs, mostly bed bugs. Cimex means bed bug and fuga is from a Latin word to fight.
Then with further changes in classification the whole genus was added to Actaea, which makes the new Latin name Actaea racemosa. Actaea was a genus named by Pliny himself. Pliny was an old Roman scholar who wrote theNatural History, science’s first encyclopedia at 37 volumes way back in 77 AD. And many of those volumes were on description and classification of plants.
Nobody remembers why he chose the name Actaea but some say it was an ancient Greek name meaning dweller on coasts referring to sea nymphs or a goddess of the moon. I think maybe it is because it is found along the coastal states, but it’s anybody’s guess.
You’ll find most of the decent articles on black cohosh still go by the original name and so the two names are now synonymous.
Fortunately the species name, racemosa is not in question. It refers to the racemes of white flowers on the plant. A raceme is a kind of arrangement of flowers: attached by little stems on a central stalk with the base of the bunch having the thickest oldest flowers and tapering to the youngest flowers and buds that have not bloomed yet on the top.
Black cohosh is native to Eastern North America from central Georgia to the southern part of Ontario Canada. The word cohosh is from the Algonquian Indian language. I thought it was going to mean something soft or soothing because of its calming effect or maybe because of the sh sound. Marshmallow, mush, mushroom, shhh. But No, to my surprise it meant rough! How ironic, the exact opposite. Some say it described the rough root which was used for health purposes. Others say that it was because of the jagged edges and unevenness of its leaves.
Well did you know that there are other cohoshes? There is blue cohosh that isn’t even in the same genus but it was used for similar things as the black cohosh, it has blue berries, red cohosh with red berries, and white cohosh with white berries. I checked it out. The roots don’t look any different and they don’t look rough. But they all have leaves that have uneven edges. So I am pretty sure that it is describing the leaves.
The major trouble I had researching this subject was that there wasn’t much said about it. I mean a lot of people wrote about it, but they all said the exact same things except for some said it was good for hot flashes and others said it was good for menopause symptoms but not good for hot flashes and some mentioned it helped menstrual pain and some didn’t. Also, I could not get down to what the main bioactive ingredients were. One source just came out and said that it binds to opioid receptors, which would make it a painkiller, but there was no evidence of that mentioned and I didn’t find it repeated anywhere else. Most said that it worked like estrogen and could be used as a replacement for the hormone, again with no evidence.
Then I found a few articles talking about its use by Native Americans that said they used it for various things and that they showed the colonists how to use it which introduced it to Europe, but only mentioned female problems and snakebite venom remedy. That made me notice the alternative names for it because one of them was snakeroot.
Alternative names I found throughout different articles are:
Black snakeroot, Bugbane, Bugwort, Rattleweed, Rattleroot, Squawroot, Rheumatism weed and Macrotys. You can see why for most of those names, but what the heck is Macrotys?
The Eclectics and What They Have to do With Black Cohosh and Other Herbs for Medicinal Use
Wow looking that up opened up a whole hidden world. Brittanica said that it was the term “the eclectics” used for black cohosh. It had a tab to click on a 1920 reference back when the encyclopedia called itself the Americana. The article was called Cimicifuga and it said that it was used largely by eclectics for digestion, heart tonic and a uterine stimulant. There’s that word again. What’s an eclectic?
Oh My Goodness! Did you know there was a time they called the Gilded Era of Medicine? It was from about 1870 to 1900. Actual medical doctors started to reject the common protocols of the day because they observed that mercury, arsenic and bloodletting were not helping but instead were killing their patients. They called themselves “The Eclectics” because they took the beneficial parts of a subject and left behind the harmful aspects. Eclectic means selecting or employing individual elements from a variety of sources, systems, or styles. So imagine, these doctors were studying everything from herbology to homeopathy and energy medicine and people were getting well for 30 years. It was hard for anyone to do anything about it because they couldn’t call this group uneducated because they had trained at the best medical schools and considered themselves a branch of Medicine.
But sadly with black propaganda and money influence from an unscrupulous source their schools were closed and they were wiped out. It was a thorough enough job that all their data was replaced with the same story all over the place. That’s why I was running into an unvarying story about this herb. Thank goodness someone saved the library of the old eclectics and I was able to get a 16 page treatise on Macrotys written in 1905. Wow! This herb has been relegated to handling female problems when actually it was a very useful all around herb. I think personally that if an herb can manage to help all that can happen with the female system with its various discomforts, it would have to be an all around herb! And oddly enough it was even used to increase male sexual performance.
Now, the story of the name Macrotys. Well it is actually a misspelling and should be Macrotrys, but the misspelling caught on and was kept to not further confuse things. Macro means large and trys is part of the Greek word botrys which means a cluster of grapes, but another plant was already called Macrobotrys. But it refers to the flowers in both cases which look like large clusters of grapes when they hang down. Macrotys racemosa was the latin name of black cohosh before it became Cimicifuga. The eclectics did not go with the change because it was already Macrotys in all of their literature. The whole story of this is fascinating. Here is the treatise found in the library of the last Eclectic school and preserved If you want to read all 16 pages for yourself. It is loaded with information.
In this writing I will give some highlights and clarifications I got out of this treatise. The Indians used black cohosh for debility and rheumatism, to promote perspiration and as a gargle for sore throats as well as using it for female problems. At the time rheumatism was a general term of moderate to severe discomfort having to do with the flows and accumulations of liquid in the body and that included menstrual discomfort, but it could be anywhere in the body.
The Eclectics learned about black cohosh, however, from the work of Dr Johan David Schöpf who volunteered to take care of the Hessian troops during the American Revolution. His country provided Hessians to England and he went along to take care of the “unfortunates”. I always wondered when they said that the Hessians were mercenary troops. Mercenaries are usually a very mixed crowd of wild tough fighters that would work for a foreign government. I found out that technically the Hessians were auxiliary troops hired out by their own government for wars they were neutral to in order to increase the country’s income. Now that makes more sense.
Well after the war was over the doctor got permission to stay to travel and study. He stayed 8 years covering most of the Eastern United States on foot as well as the Bahamas and wrote a Materia Medica of America cataloging all the medicinal plants he encountered. This found its way into the hands of the Eclectics. It helped immeasurably in early studies.
Early studies by doctors found black cohosh to be very fast acting in matters of soothing the nervous system and gave it for practically everything.
Finally I found out why it is Black Cohosh when there is no black on the whole plant. If you take green fresh roots which are white on the inside and break them they turn dark and eventually black. Talk about a hidden fact!
This treatise really describes the real deal menstrual pain that I had when I was younger. People called it “cramps”, but it was SO much more than that. I WISH I would have known about this herb then. Dr’s enthusiastically said that it was invariable and that it never failed to work against this. It also ended soreness in the skeletal muscles and the skin. And even helped with the heart. If there was a weepy tissue with too much water in it it just firmed it right up. Just imagine how many tissues have that problem from time to time. That’s why it works to help the uterus be prepared for birth and then postpartum recovery. It just tones everything. It helps the lungs too.
There was a funny story about a country man who sold a remedy that people traveled from far and wide to obtain. It was said to cure things that people didn’t get cured from doctors. He was very generous in charity and pricing but he would never say what it was. He guarded the secret till he was dying and called the eclectics. He said he wanted to impart his secret to them as a gift to humanity. When he called it "a bitters of rattle root and whisky." They were more than a little surprised that it was something they were already using.
They unfortunately did not have any idea how this herb worked. They called the part of the remedy that they considered had the important mixture of components cimicfugian. I tried to look that up to see if anyone found the biochemical action, but only cimicfugioside was named as a player in this. I saw its wonderful structure, but no modus operandi was offered. This must be a wonder substance because it seems just a bit like it’s a secret or something. BUT there was another compound mentioned, actein.
Isolated Active Ingredient
Saints Be Praised! Finally an isolated active ingredient! Actein slices through mucus and improves the ability of certain immune cells which clean up the tissues from intruders and foreign matter. Oh and this makes sense, it is a precursor to Glutathione! Glutathione is one of the most important antioxidants in all of biochemistry. It protects the inside and the outside of cells. It is extremely important in taking care of the organ that takes care of dismantling toxicity for the whole body, the liver.
Actein is used in the management of acetaminophen overdose. Most common form of this is Tylenol. So that’s right along the same line because an overdose of this damages the liver.
Well researching black cohosh has been quite a journey. I am sure that someday there will be wide open studies on this herb featuring many active ingredients, but no one has to wait for that. You know it is more important what it does for you personally than what any study no matter how slick says it does or doesn’t. That’s why I am always experimenting on myself. This seems to be one of those herbs that should be in everybody’s first aid kit and medicine cabinet, not to mention diet.
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