One of the best plants for shade available. Black cohosh produces large mounds of interesting foliage that will brighten any woodland throughout the year. Not only that but during late summer if blooms with huge tall candle like plumes when nothing else in the woodland is producing any flowers. This makes it invaluable to brighten any woodland setting. It's a tough perennial plant hardy to -40°F (-40°C ). Once established it takes almost no maintenance. It likes deciduous woodland settings with rich well drained soil (it wont grow under coniferous trees). Butterflies and humming birds love it and it provides a rich source of food for all these creatures when little else is available in a woodland. It's a little tougher to start from seed than some plants but its really worth the effort.
Description of black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa)
Stunning beautiful plant for shade. This wonderful woodland plant can grow up to 8' at maturity when flowering. However it also produces mounding clumps of mid to dark green compound leaves that can be up to 4" long and 3" with course toothed edges. These are deeply lobed standing on stiff upright stems they can reach 2' in height depending on location. In mid summer the plant puts up multiple stiff tall stems that can reach 6 feet in height. The flowers are produced on the top 1-3 feet of these stems. Flowering from the bottom up it produces small white flowers about 2/3" across and look more like tiny exploding stars. The flower is made up mostly of the stamens with a single central pistil, the 'petals' are insignificant and drop very early. Flowers continued to bloom upwards along the stem providing an prolonged flowering period of a bout 6-8 weeks usually during mid to late summer. Flower stems are stiff and upright on plants grown in the sunshine but tend to bend over when plants are in shaded areas. The flowers are followed by short curved follicles that contain a few seeds each. The root system is rhizomatous and fibrous.
Growing of black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa) from Seed.
Black cohosh or bugbane is not the easiest plant to grow from seed. Its very fussy about its warm cold cycles and wont germinate until its had warm/cold/warm. This can be very frustrating for almost any grower. There are two main ways to deal with the seed. The easiest is to direct sow, and be patient. However if you live in an area where there is not significant cold period or you want to speed things along you can mimic the cycle yourself.
Choose a location that you want your black cohosh to grow in. This should have good organic material and hold moisture so it will stay moist for fairly long periods, but not wet. Sow the seeds by pressing them into the soil or scattering them. If scattering you may with to mix them with some sand that is a different color from your soil so you can see where the seeds have been sown.
The best time to do this is during the later summer and early fall, then the seeds get the benefit of the cold of the winter and may germinate in the following spring. However often they wont germinate until the spring after and you may need to wait a whole year for them to come up. Therefore you need to mark where you sowed the seeds and keep it free of other weeds to give the plants a chance.
Since black cohosh is becoming a more important economic crop research has been done on germination techniques. The important thing to understand is that although the seeds need a warm/cold/warm cycle they also need to be moist during this time.
Research has found the best way to treat the seeds if for a period of darkness at 77°F (25°C) for two weeks, followed by incubation at 39-40°F (-40°C ) in darkness for 3 - 4 months and then cultivation at 77°F (25°C) with a 16-hour photoperiod to generate seedlings.
The best way to achieve this is to:
1.Wash seeds thoroughly. Then soak them for 20 minutes in a 10% bleach solution to sterilize the surface. This is to prevent the seeds from going moldy during the stratification process.
2.Place seeds in sterile seeding mix. Use a small plastic container with a good sealing lid. Add some sterile seeding mix to the bottom and moisten. Place the seeds on top of the mixture then cover with a fine layer of the mix. Spray the mix using a spray bottle with tap water. Make sure the water is fresh from the tap not some that has been sitting around and may contain microbes.
3. Put a label on the box. State what is in it and the date in which you put the seeds in. (you wont remember later).
3. Put seeds in a warm place, somewhere that will stay around 77°F (25 °C) for about two weeks.
4. After two weeks take the box and place it in the refrigerator. Make sure you label it well and place it somewhere that it will not get disturbed, turned over and otherwise mixed. Leave it there for 3 months.
5. After the three month period. Take the box out and carefully remove the seeds. Plant in small pots or individual cells in plug trays. Do not cover seeds as they now need light to germinate.
6. place in an area where the seeds will receive as much light as possible. Research showed that providing 12-16 hours of light gave the best germination results. If sowing in spring providing additional light rather than just sunlight is recommended.
Some sites report that germination is usually in spring no matter when the seeds were sown, but we have found following the method above that the seeds will germinate when you want them too. However this plant does take patience, but its well worth it for the plants you get.
Once plants have germinated transplant into individual pots when they are large enough to handle and grow on as any other plant. Gradually acclimatize plant to the outside environment where you intend to plant them before transplanting to their final location. If seeds were sow late in the year, overwinter small pots in frost free environment and plant out the following spring to ensure high survival rates.
How was your seed handled before it got to you?
How effective your germination rate is can also depend on how your seed was handled. Many seed companies just leave their seed in a warm room until its time to ship it to you. This is not the best thing for seed viability especially black cohosh. All our seed was kept at room temperature briefly while it was cleaned then stored in a cool environment idea for seeds until it was shipped to you. We keep all our black cohosh seeds in a refrigerator to aid in the cold stratification process. However the seed is NOT moist. (its hard to ship moistened seeds without them going moldy). In many cases our customers have found that they can just sow the seeds as normal when they receive them and the plants will germinate. However the germination rate may be lower than if the seeds were moist stratified first. We suggest that you divide your seeds into two groups and experiment with both methods.
Location and Care of black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa)
Black cohosh is one of the best plants for shady areas. It thrives in woodland settings and will tolerate a lot more shade than most other plants. It is extremely hardy and can survive to hardy to-40°F (- 40°C). In colder zones black cohosh can grow well in semi shade or even in full sunshine. This is not recommended below zone 5a, semi shade can be used down to 7a but below that the plants should be in full shade in a location with good airflow to keep the plants cooler. Do not plant in a sheltered location below zone 7b or plants may not do well.
Black cohosh (bugbane) likes rich moist soils. An area under deciduous trees with good leaf litter is an excellent choice. It will not grow under coniferous (pines and fir) trees. Once established Black cohosh needs almost no maintenance although it may will need additional water in times of drought when forest soils dry out. If this happens the foliage can become scorched and wizen. Reversely it will not grow in waterlogged soils or those that become very sodden and drain poorly.
Ensure that enough space is allowed for these plants the clumps of leaves can reach 2-3 feet across in ideal locations and the flower spikes rise to 6 feet or more. In most cases they don't need staking but in some locations of deeper shade the stalks may bend over and need assistance. Don't plant any closer than 24" when starting plants out.
Black cohosh is fairly slow growing. It can take many years for a plant to
reach its maximum size, however the plants are extremely long lived with many
plants reported to be thriving after 25 years. Once planted they are best left
alone for several years to establish.
The only maintenance needed is possibly to cut down flower spikes before then next years growth appears.
Pruning of foliage can be done in the springtime if desired. This allows the leaves to brighten the woodlands during the winter months and provide interest that would otherwise not be available.
Leave leaf litter from trees to fertilize plants and if desired add a slow release fertilizer in spring. Some sources state that the plant prefers a slightly acidic soil. However in a good woodland setting the fallen tree leaves usually provide enough acidity to keep the plants happy. If your plants do appear are stunted you may wish to have a soil sample taken to ensure you have the ideal conditions for the plant.
Left alone they will grow into large plants that brighten any woodland area and produce flowers at a time when no other woodland plant is blooming.
Insects and Diseases of black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa).
For the most part black cohosh is not susceptible to pests and diseases. However on some occasions it can develop leaf spots which can cause premature defoliation of the plant, reducing root growth and seed set. This is usually due to plants being located in areas where there is poor air circulation or plants have become very crowded. To combat. A fungicide can be applied to help the plants short term but to ensure the plants continued good health the airflow problem needs to be addressed. Either move plants to a location with better air flow or cut vegetation around them to allow more air flow. If plants have become overcrowded thin by removing some of the plants to allow for airflow.
Root rot can occur if plants have been located in a area where the soil is too moist or becomes waterlogged after rains.
Harvesting of black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa).
Roots. This is best done in the fall when they contain the maximum bioactive compounds. Plants are usually dug by hand and the whole root, rhizomes and the fibrous roots are collected. They can then either be used fresh or dried for later use.
Medical uses of black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa).
A very important herb in the treatment of menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes, insomnia and depression, vaginal dryness, mood swings and night sweats. It can also be used in younger women to aid with menstrual cramps. However it is also useful to treating tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and high blood pressure. The roots also contain a salicylic acid, making it useful in treating rheumatoid arthritis, sciatica and chorea. Native Americans used it extensively to treat a variety of different problems including sore throat, muscles, indigestion and cough.
Large quantities of the root can be toxic so it should be taken with caution and completely avoided by pregnant women
Other uses of black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa).
The juice of the plant, especially the flower stems has can be used as an insect repellent. Hence the name Bugbane .
A native American plant in possible danger.
In the wild this plant was most commonly found in mixed deciduous eastern North American forests and forest margins, often in mountainous terrain from Massachusetts south to Georgia, west to northwest and north central Arkansas and the adjacent Ozarks of Missouri , north through the Ohio River Valley to southern Ontario. However numbers are rapidly decreasing since most of the material for herbal supplement use is collect from wild plants. Since the demand for this plant is increasing and the black cohosh plants take quite a while to develop roots that are suitable for harvest the plant populations are declining rapidly.
What's with the name change?
A dive into the literature reveals that there have been disagreements about the classification - and hence the name - of black cohosh dating back to about 1680. Botanists appear to have been bickering about the correct classification and name of this plant for more than 330 years. Steven Foster wrote an extremely interesting article about this subject which can be seen here. Sadly however half he article is missing.
In a nutshell botanists can't seem to agree on where it should be lodged and
every time there is a major change a long debate ensues. It can take 80 years
or more for a name change to be accepted or totally rejected.
For more than 100 years black cohosh has been happily settled in the Cimicifuga genus as Cimicifuga racemosa var. cordifolia, which is where Linnaeus put it in the first place. This is based on morphology of the plant mainly that Actaea has a berry-like fruit and Cimicifuga has a dry follicle.
Black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa) does indeed have a dry follicle and not a berry and everyone seemed happy with this taxonomy until a scientist in England - Dr James Compton - did some DNA analysis and announced that black cohosh had more DNA in common with most of the Actaea group than the Cimicifuga group and so he renamed it and moved it to Actaea based on the DNA totally ignoring the taxonomy of the plant altogether.
While some places are dutifully accepting the new name a lot are not. Many insist that since it has a dry follicle not a berry its not a Actaea but a Cimicifuga. Having read a lot of the literature over the past week before I wrote this I am inclined to agree.
Very few plants have had total DNA analysis performed on them and I suspect that if it was then a lot of plants would move around to different groups. This could cause a lot more confusion because taxonomically many plants (and animals) can look very different while having similar DNA. The system of classification that has always been used is to help us group plants that have similar characteristics so we can easily identify them. If we choose to use DNA rather than taxonomy its going to get very confusing for everyone.
Pure academic science of course does not care what the real world thinks. But enough people are unhappy about this change that the debate is going to continue for many years to come. So while we like many will make note of the name change we will wait until the debate has reached total agreement before we remove the Cimicifuga name from this plant.
Other names of black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa).
Fairy Candles, Bugbane, Appalachian bugbane, Black snakeroot, Baneberry, Black cohosh, macrotys, rattleroot, black snakeroot, rattleweed, and rattle top.