Back in early August, Dan and I took a hike in the North Mills River area of western North Carolina—the source of good hiking trails that is closest to our house. I hear that the recreation area gets lots of use, particularly from mountain bikers, but we’ve rarely seen other hikers on the trails that lead through this northeastern portion of the Pisgah National Forest’s Pisgah Ranger District.
For this hike, we planned to take Yellow Gap Road to the Pilot Cove/Slate Rock trailhead and hike the Slate Rock trail to the eastern leg of the Pilot Cove Loop and back down to Yellow Gap Road for a short road-walk back to Bucky (my van). Instead, we missed a left turn across Slate Rock Creek and headed up a well-traveled but unmarked trail to eventually meet the Laurel Mountain Trail. We didn’t know we were on the Laurel Mountain Trail at the time; we didn’t realize we’d missed the turn until later, when our 4.5-mile hike stretched to 5 miles, then 6, then 7 …
Eventually, after 9 miles and much map-checking and head-shaking (and listening to the traffic on the nearby Blue Ridge Parkway) (What? Did we seriously hike almost all the way to the Parkway?!?), we emerged back onto Yellow Gap Road, but at the Pilot Rock trailhead, where Ariel, a very nice stranger who'd recently moved here from California, provided the four-mile hitch to Bucky.
Despite the trail mixup and the extra mileage, we had a good hike and took many pictures of mushrooms and a few summer wildflowers. One such flower was the black snakeroot (Cimicifuga racemosa), a tall plant whose showy white flowers bloom from late June to August.
We didn’t get close enough to smell the flowers, and I wish we had; my Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide says it’s “ill-scented,” but some gardeners disagree; one blogger even uses the phrase “fantastically fragrant” when describing it.
Apparently, bugs aren’t crazy about the scent; it belongs to the Bugbane genus, Cimicifuga—which literally translates as “bug-repellant.” (Cimex is the generic name for bedbug, while fugare means to repel or drive away; you can see it in the English words fugitive and centrifuge.) When this genus was first established, it was for a particularly stinky European herb that was used to drive away insects.
The species designation racemosa refers to the raceme, or spike-like structure of the flower.
The leaves of this plant are trifoliate—i.e., each “leaf” is actually three leaflets.
As for the common name, black snakeroot, black refers to the color of the rhizome, while snakeroot reflects its historical use as a cure for rattlesnake bite. This is indeed a medicinal plant, called "black cohosh" in medical/healing circles. The roots and rhizomes are particularly known for their effectiveness treating symptoms of menopause and PMS. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center's page, “More than two centuries ago, Native Americans discovered that the root of the black cohosh plant … helped relieve menstrual cramps and menopausal symptoms, such as hot flashes, irritability, mood swings, and sleep disturbances.”
(Hmm, maybe I should done some digging and harvested some while I had the chance …)
Cohosh, by the way, is an Indian name used for medicinal plants, but the original meaning is unknown, as far as I can tell.
So, when and where can you find black snakeroot? I’ve already mentioned that it’s a summer wildflower that grows late June through August. You can find it in the rich woods of the Appalachians west to the Ozarks and north to the Great Lakes. You might find growing naturally as far northeast as western Massachusetts, but it's rare in New England. Because of its beauty and medicinal uses, it’s cultivated in various places, and it also springs up in cleared areas, on wooded hillsides, and in woodland pastures. It's most common in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. Black snakeroot is hard to miss; in addition to the noticeable flowers, the stem can grow four to eight feet high!
You’re not likely to see this flower anytime soon, though, and neither am I; August is past, and only the must stubborn of last summer wildflowers are still hanging around. I’ll keep an eye out for it on next summer’s hikes, though … and take a whiff when I get the chance!
EmpoweringSites.com. n.d. EnhanceMyVocabulary.com. Accessed September 10, 2016. http://www.enhancemyvocabulary.com/word-roots_latin_6.html.
Kress, Henriette. n.d. Henriette's Herbs. Accessed September 10, 2016. http://www.henriettes-herb.com/eclectic/dmna/cimicifuga.html.
Land, Leslie. 2010. Leslie Land In Kitchen and Garden. September 9. Accessed September 10, 2016. http://leslieland.com/2010/09/cimicifuga-actaea-snakeroot-bugbane-no-matter-what-you-call-it-i-love-it/.
Newcomb, Lawrence. 1989. Newcomb's Wildflower Guide. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.
Erlich, Steven D., NMD. 2016. Black Cohosh. February 3. Accessed September 10, 2016. http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/herb/black-cohosh.