Black Cohosh is one of the most beautiful plants that bloom in July through early September. However, it is the strong odor of the flowers that gives Black Cohosh its other common name, Bugbane. The strong odor acts as an insect repellent. I like the fragrance. It seems sweet and fruity. The botanical name Cimicifuga is Latin for “bug repellent”.
Arguably the most important part of the black Cohosh plant is the root. The name Cohosh is from an Algonquian word meaning “rough” and refers to the rough texture of the rhizome. The “Black” in the name “Black Cohosh” is based on the color of the root, not the flower. It has been used as medicine for many different illnesses and diseases. It was a favorite Native American medicine for menstrual cramps and childbirth. It was also, as were numerous other plants in our area, used to treat a snakebite!
In the 19th century a tincture was made from the roots to treat rheumatism. Laboratory testing has shown that an extract of the rhizome does indeed have an anti-inflammatory effect. In our damp, cold environment, arthritis, rheumatism and neuralgia must have been quite common. It still is today.
Large doses of Cohosh can cause symptoms of poisoning. Too much can cause a miscarriage and it certainly can make you feel nausea and dizziness. The dosage is everything . . . just the right amount could heal and too much could kill or cause a woman to lose her baby.
In late July and August Black Cohosh blooms profusely along the upper loop of the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. The plant itself is usually about three feet tall. When it sends up its tall, slender flower stalk it adds another three to four feet ending in a feathery plume of white flowers that is simply gorgeous. The flowers seem to glow in contrast to the darkness of the foliage and soil of deep summer and create the potential for a wonderful picture, especially in the early morning or at dusk.
Interestingly, up to just recently, Black Cohosh has been thought to contain a phytoestrogen. It now appears that this is not correct. Although the root does have an estrogen like effect in humans it does not appear to contain phytoestrogen after all!
Black Cohosh is sold on-line and in every drugstore as a treatment for hot flashes. Farmers grow it as a commercial crop and it has a lot of potential in North Carolina. As of now, however, most of the product that is used is collected from the wild. To find it growing in large patches is becoming more and more rare. That is why it is so special to see it, especially when it is blooming, at Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest.
Hiking in July and August can be hot and humid. Always bring water with you and wear good shoes and clothing that is not tight or heavy. Snakes and stinging insects are very active at the time the Black Cohosh flowers bloom. Be aware. Do hike, and know that some of the most special plants, including orchids, bloom during these times. Don’t miss the chance and if you are particularly sensitive to heat, plan to hike the trail before 10:30 am or after 7:00pm.