Aunt Bett's Unmentionables: Blue Cohosh
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on September 16, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
Many times I have told you that Aunt Bett had a use for most plants. If it wasn't edible or medicinal, it wasn't important to her. We planted a garden so that we could eat, and the other plants that we gathered were made into tonics or tinctures, salves or balms, teas or decoctions of some sort. There were standard procedures for making these medicines and I learned all of them at an early age. As we cooked up a batch of roots from one plant or another, she explained what the plant was used for and any directions that went along with it. I was a fast learner. First of all decoctions, infusions and salves were all made the same way, no matter what the plant was. Over time, I could offer a bottle of pale green liquid to treat poison ivy about as quickly as I could make a chain of daisies for my hair I knew which salve was used for bug bites and which liquid was made to treat indigestion. But there were times when we made up a liquid, and Aunt Bett was very secretive about it.
I remember that it nearly drove me crazy not knowing what a medicine was to be used for, and I am sure I nearly drove Aunt Bett crazy with questions. And I saw the exasperation on my mom's face when I asked her why on earth the bunny was connected to colored eggs on Easter Sunday. Same thing with Santa and the doll that was dressed in clothes made of the very same fabric as my favorite white dress with blue flowers and lace on it. And the same look appeared on Aunt Bett's face when I asked what that decoction made from Blue Cohosh was used for. Total exasperation. She hemmed and hawed around, and never did tell me. Time passed and I forgot, until last week when I was wandering around in the Land Between the Lakes near my home. I came upon a plant that I recognized from long ago, and I couldn't remember what it was so I took out my ever present sketch book and my colored pencils and drew it..
It is a good thing I have a couple of drawing skills, because as soon as I got home I started digging around in Dave's Garden Plant Files. It took awhile, well, several days actually since I couldn't remember the name of the plant, but finally there it was, Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides), the very plant that Aunt Bett would never tell me anything about. It is pretty embarrassing to realize that I am just about the same age now as Aunt Bett was then, and I still didn't know a thing about this little plant. It's perfectly OK if you want to call me a slow learner at this point, but now that I know I will try my best to explain it to you in words that will be acceptable. Aunt Bett gave the potion she made from Blue Cohosh to women for birth control! I don't think anyone ever told me the facts of life back in those days, I had to make them up as I went along. Things like that were just NEVER mentioned around children. But I should have been told, don't you think?
Anyway, I did my research and learned a lot. Finally. Blue Cohosh was used by the Chippewa wise women as a strong decoction for birth control. And I guess whatever our Native Americans did was good enough for Aunt Bett. Actually a few great grandmas back, I find that there was a Native American grandmother, and I suspect the education started with her and flowed down through the generations all the way to Aunt Bett, my blue eyed blond ancestor. You can't prove it by looks, though, because Aunt Bett and I had that curly blond hair of the Scots and Irish, but we also have some cheekbones that might have found their source those many years ago.
So the Native Americans used the unmentionable Blue Cohosh also for the regulation of the menstrual cycle and to ease cramps during that same cycle. I find now that herbalists still use it in formulas to treat endometriosis and dysplasia. It is used in moderation during the last month of pregnancy, and during birth to ease labor pains. It does have a tendency to stress kidneys if used in excess, and it can lower blood pressure. Even the herbalists suggest that it is to be used only under the advice and direction of a trained medical practitioner.
The plant grows in swamps and near running streams, and there were many of those where I grew up. I remember collecting it when it bloomed in May, but we also went back later when the berries, which are blue by the way, were ready for harvest. They were sometimes roasted and boiled in water and given as a decoction resembling coffee. A woman could drink it and no one would be the wiser.
What I do remember about all of this, aside from making the decoctions and the infusions, was the fact that whenever Aunt Bett handed it out, it was always to a young woman who had a gaggle of little kids hanging all over her. The men of the family wanted a lot of children to work their gardens and farm chores, but I guess the young women were aged beyond their time by having given birth so often. Blue Cohosh was the only way the young mother felt she had any control over any of it.
It was not the topic of conversation in those days. As I said, nobody ever told me about the birds and the bees, but we learned by being around critters and farm animals. It was simply never discussed, particularly in front of children. But there you have it, an interesting little plant whose significance it took me many years to understand.
Well, I'll bet you didn't know either.
Photos are from Plant Files. Thanks to these photographers, Kathleen, Equilibrium, and gregr18 for their excellent photos.
The information in this article was in material collected by my family, and confirmed by an uncle who is a retired physician.
I also confirmed that information by looking at some herbal websites, none of which were any more informative than what I already knew from family writings.
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