The Mother Lode of Black Cohosh

Michael Pilarski, Friends of the Trees Botanicals, 3/3/2017

Anyone want some black cohosh root? Fresh, dry, or propagation material?

Black Cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa) is one of the most well-known and commonly-used medicinal plants native to the US East Coast. If you don’t know about its medicinal uses, there is lots of information on the internet and in herb books.

A friend of mine planted a big patch of black cohosh about 13 years ago in northeast Washington just below the Canadian border in a zone-5 growing season. He put in a drip irrigation system and mulched heavily with wood chips. He had very good establishment and there are few blank spots in the planting. After several years of irrigation he abandoned the planting. The land was subsequently sold and the new owners contacted me about marketing it five or six years ago. Since then I have been doing spring and fall digs every year and have dug around a thousand pounds by now.

There are still over 2,000 pounds in the field. We can’t call it “woods grown” because woods-grown means it was planted as an understory in a natural forest and largely left untended. This black cohosh planting isn’t in an understory. It was planted in a small field surrounded by natural forest.  It meets the definition of untended because it hasn’t been irrigated, fertilized, weeded or tended for ten years or so.  It was certified organic in its early years and has never seen a pesticide in its life. This is a remote location.

This black cohosh lives in a 25-inch annual precipitation zone.  Luckily the sandy loam holds enough moisture to keep the black cohosh healthy even without irrigation.  These aren’t wimpy black cohosh.  They have had to survive drought years as well as wet years.  These are BIG black cohosh plants. Each plant’s rootball weighs in the 40- to 80-pound range when we first roll them out of their hole. We are using deep nursery spades to dig them.

Black Cohosh is native to the Eastern US where it mainly grows in hardwood forest understory. It has been wildcrafted by the hundreds of tons per year for much of the past century.  Wildcrafting in its native habitat (and forest clearing) has reduced their populations a lot. At this point most of the black cohosh is still wildcrafted.  More people are growing it and I encourage this to reduce pressure on the remaining wild populations.  Following I will give a few growing comments.

Black Cohosh Root Fresh

1-4 pounds - $12.00

5-25 pounds - $8.00

26-100 pounds - $6.00

100 #+ orders - inquire

Dry root

1-4 pounds - $24.00

5-25 pounds - $20.00

Growing Black Cohosh

I have been growing black cohosh for 20 years in a dozen locations in Washington, Oregon and Montana. It has done well for me in every location I’ve planted it.  It has a reputation as an understory plant, but I have found that it does best in full sun in my northern latitude. It does okay in the understory but it puts weight on quicker in the full sun and I have never observed symptoms of sunburn, even in some pretty desert-like conditions (as long as you keep it irrigated). I have grown it in hot, dry 10-inch rainfall locations and irrigation was a must. I never harvest till after 4 years of growth, minimum. I like to harvest in years 5 and 6. Even if you can sell everything it is nice to keep some of the oldest clumps going just so they can express themselves to the fullest.

Propagation: I do all my propagation from clump division.  At 4+ years of age, each root clump can be divided into 8 to 12 divisions. Even more if you take micro-divisions and plant them in 4-inch pots to get them started.  As long as you have one bud and a bit of root it will grow. I mostly use hefty divisions with multiple shoots and a chunk of root and plant them directly in the field. I plant these at 2-foot spacing in the row and 3 feet between rows. That is 7,260 plants per acre at that spacing.

The divisions are planted in early spring with the shoots about 1 inch below the surface. The shoots will emerge in due course, but usually after the first wave of weed germination. So it is helpful to mark the rows at close intervals so you can hoe alongside the rows before cohosh shoot emergence.  Once the shoots have emerged, weed them closely and thoroughly.  Mulching at this point is recommended (if not prior). Weeding should be done as needed (and thoroughly) during the growing season.  In year two, weeding will not be so much a problem.  In years 3 or further, the plants tolerate weed pressure but it is better if they are thoroughly mulched so that they have the field.

Overall, black cohosh is a relatively easy plant to grow.  I would even like to say “it is robust”.  It is worth growing a few black cohosh just for its ornamental and fragrant qualities.  The tall showy spires of white flowers attract human attention and many pollinators as well. The fragrance is strong.  The regular black cohosh is lovely but even more stunning as an ornamental is Cimicifuga atropurpurea, the purple-flowered black cohosh.  Taller, more robust, tinges of red purple, even more fragrant.

I sell black cohosh root divisions for propagation.

$3.00 each for 1-9.

$2.50 each for 10 to 100

$2.00 each for 100 +

I hope this short introduction will entice more people to grow black cohosh and purchase some from me: [email protected]