Friday, June 27, 2008

Blue Cohosh

Blue Cohosh ~ Caulophyllum thalictroids ~

In the woods by my River, the Blue Cohosh has found a private clearing to inhabit. It's somewhere between human and spirit world, I'm convinced, since I've hiked past this very spot countless times, without ever seeing it. And it's not just a few plants, it's a veritable sea of Blue Cohosh. How could I have never seen it? How could I have hiked twice as far just to watch the one Papoose plant I found a few years ago?

As I think back to the birth of my own two children, I remember distinctly the veil where the mother resides while laboring. I remember the lucid state between human and superhuman, between bawdy realism and sheer sorcery. The place where the curtain of life lifts to reveal the newest masterpiece, but not without agonizing suspense.
I remember the musky mix my mother smuggled towards me in a smallish cup, behind the knit blanket when the nurses left the room. I sucked it in during my few more conscious moments, savoring the sharp and earthy taste, feeling it travel instantly to my blood and stomach, right where it knew it needed to be. It wasted no time getting to work. This is the work of the Cohosh, the midwife, the one who knows labor. In the thick of it, when it all seems dense and crowded and unchanging, Blue Cohosh roots herself deeply in the cool fertile soil in the clearing of the forest. She finds space where there wasn't any, water where you never knew, and dappled shade from the blaring sun.
Blue Cohosh is among our grandmothers who know the secrets of natural childbirth, of shamanic childbirth, and of the true and deep labors of life. She is few on this planet now, struggling to teach her wisdom to the next tradition holders before it's too late. But it takes time. It takes patience, commitment, attention, and a lot of respect. That day I had set out on the trail to recover my daughters black poncho that I had lost the day before. I took the same path exactly. I scoured the trail, checking each spot where I may have bent down or twisted loose the poncho. It was the third day in a row I had taken the trail, and the same one I've taken from my house and back over the last four years since I moved here. I check on the one Blue Cohosh plant each time, watching it change colors, flowering and putting up little dark blue berries. Something about this morning was auspicious. Did the plant recognize me? Welcome me back? Know that I was watching? Perhaps she knew that I'd been watching all this time .... and that I never dared take even a leaf.
You don't pull on Grandmother's hair. You wait for her to offer you a lock.
I touched her soft, paw shaped leaf and thanked her for still growing, despite the vast over harvesting that has taken place. I told her I was listening.
I continued to scour the path and edges for my daughter's poncho. I began to find Blue Cohosh plants here and there, more and more, where I'd never seen them. It's as if they just grew right then and there.
I even found several more pink lady's slipper. But no poncho in sight. I finally just gave up on finding it, and started for home.
In the Northeast, Connecticut in particular, there are a great many rock walls in the forests. These come from the old farmlands, before it became reforested. They are charming to come by, giving a feel for history and for the cycles that both nature and economy undergo. And in this case, it offers a visual distraction from the secret sea of Blue Cohosh I was about to discover. I only saw one plant at first, and again it was if each one grew right before my eyes. Trickery!
I couldn't even believe there were so many. It was a moment to just sit in awe and listen to the stories from this Great Grandmother.
There isn't any wonder why any good novel involving plant lore or midwifery romantically inserts this plant somewhere. It's historically valid and also indicative of the magic it undoubtedly conjures. It's not a casual use herb, illustrated by a few clear factors; the fact that it grows far away from people is a clue that it needs to be handled with care, the fact that even though it's a perennial, it grows only one stem per year, indicating that we need only take a small amount or the plant will not thrive in the future, and the fact that it's not truly abundant - it's not prolific like food plants such as Burdock and Dandelion. It stays in the deeper moist and magical parts of the forest. (Remind you of a certain special body part .... demanding respect?) It's strong medicine.

The Native Americans weren't stranger to Blue Cohosh. They called it Papoose root and Squawroot, of course. They offered it, often in tandem with Black Cohosh and other forest birthing herbs, to the laboring mother who would either sip the root brew or chew on a fresh root. This latter way was my first instinct, as I wriggled free the one plant I felt permitted to take. I snapped off a tiny end of a rootlet and twirled it around in my mouth. It was rooty and bitter, both moist and dry. I read later that this was not a good idea, that it could cause dermatitis or nausea, or some such reaction, none of which occurred for me. The root, which is the part of the plant traditionally used, is said to be most effective when prepared in water (which would explain the chewing method) and is used to hasten uterine contractions by stimulating the muscles linked to the reproductive system. Perhaps its phytoestrogen content is a contributing factor, I'm not sure. I know that if I take a few drops of Blue Cohosh when my Moon is tense and waiting to flow, it creates instant response. The muscles in my lower back and pelvis relax, and my Moon comes on without a glitch. When I have "labored" too long and hard at something - work, a project, or an issue that won't seem to change - Blue Cohosh hastens the birth of new life that has been waiting to emerge, both literally and figuratively. Both my children were ushered into the world through a Cohosh laced veil. Grandmother Cohosh tells us not to rush precious things, to be consistent, to pay attention, to be committed to your purpose.
Here you can see clearly the 'caps'. These are characteristic of Blue Cohosh, as each year's stalk that grows, leaves its cap upon the rhizome when it dies back for the winter. This rhizome would be at least seven years old.As I hold this wise plant in my muddy fingers, I can feel its vibration, its even rhythm. It smells like autumn air wrapped in a stream washed afghan. It's the discerning glance of an elder, revealing to a youngster whether they are behaving or not. It makes me think of the Grandmother in her lodge, praying for the next seven generations. Being born, myself, on 7-7-75, I consider this my karmic number. I am linked somehow with the rule of the seven generations, or as this experience might suggest, perhaps I am the seventh - now responsible for the next. And so, reverently, I prepare my first ever Blue Cohosh root tincture - with lower alcohol content as to make an effective preparation. It's almost been six weeks .... she awaits her own transformation.
She displayed herself beautifully at my kitchen window for many days, before retiring to the compost. Stubborn old lady!!The gifts of this forest beauty are many. But she needs respect and protection the same as our elders and out dying traditions do. She has many stories to tell us if we listen.


Yarrow said...

Just beautiful. I love rading your poetic posts about the herbs and nature, such a pleasure. Thank you for sharing. I have never had need of blue cohosh for labor, the Mother Goddess blessed me with quick and fairly easy births, but I am very happy to know that she is growing still in those wild, magical places. Thank you for being her caretaker. blessings.

Ananda said...

Thank you Yarrow, it is my pleasure :) and indeed a blessing to have swift births!

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook said...

Interesting. I know this plant from the Watchung Mountains in New Jersey, but I always shied away from it. Guess I know why -- it's for women, not men.

But those caps look a lot like those on elecampane, which I grow for the winters when I get all lungy...

Ananda said...

really? neat. good one to grow for sure! Do you prepare it in water?

I bet there is an application appropriate for men as well, maybe muscle spasms - but of course if there is a common plant that works, then the more sustainable is the choice.
thanks for coming by, Hunter!

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook said...

I candy the roots of elecampane and eat them like lozenges. Odd, menthol-ish bitter-sweet taste. Works pretty well, though...

Ananda said...

Nice! I love that idea! Can we expect a post on that? :)It qualifies as cooking .....