Cimicifuga racemosa (black cohosh)
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Painting by Christine Andreae
Part of the inspiration for this project was a large patch of black cohosh which I discovered in our woods on the west side of the Shenandoah National Park. The tall, delicate spikes were not only visually lovely; they led me to think about native plants that were connected to “female complaints” – plants that a healer like Lucy might have used. When I dug up one of the roots, I was surprised by the vibrant colors that belied its name: gold, russet, copper. Its little shoots reminded me of a castle’s turrets glowing at sunset. My specimen didn’t turn black until it had completely dried and shrunken to half its original size.
Since it is the root of the black cohosh that is used medicinally, I wanted to give it an emphatic focus, so I centered it on the paper and painted it in watercolor, then drew the bloom spike and leaves in graphite as a background.
Thomas Jefferson lists Cimicifuga as “black snake root” and describes it as a medicinal herb in his only published book, Notes on the State of Virginia. Like most folk remedies, it was used to treat a wide variety of multiple complaints: bronchitis, cholera, fevers, nervous disorders, lumbago, rheumatism, snakebites. It was also used in childbirth and for menstrual irregularities. Black cohosh was a main ingredient in the famous “Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound” used by many women in the 19th century for a variety of disorders, including menopause-associated hot flashes.
The list of plants used to treat “female complaints” is a long one: Foster and Duke’s Eastern Medicinal Plants lists dozens of them. Most, like the red trillium (Trillium erectum) used by Native Americans, or the yellow lady slipper (Cypripedium calceolus) which was a popular 19th Century remedy, are no longer considered to have medicinal value. However, black cohosh teas and extracts are still widely used for PMS and menopausal symptoms. Modern research has confirmed estrogenic, sedative, and anti-inflammatory and hypoglycemic properties. (Foster and Duke, p.64-65)
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine reports that studies are mixed as to whether black cohosh relieves menopausal symptoms and that there is not enough reliable data on the plant’s effectiveness in treating rheumatism and other ailments. (NIH, p.18) However, at least 24 clinical trials have been conducted since 1987 with approximately 60% (14 out of 24) showing statistically significant benefits. The mechanism underlying the potential clinical effects of black cohosh root probably involves the presence of various phytoestrogens (i.e. actein, cimifugoside, and formononetin). (NSD)