What is Caulophyllum?

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

Caulophyllum is a genus of flowering herbs with three species: C. thalictroides, C. robustum, and C. giganteum. The plants are native to East Asia and eastern North America. Common names include blue cohosh, papoose root, and squaw root. The plant is used in alternative medicine to induce menstruation and childbirth, to treat cancer and parasite infection, and to induce urination and improve smooth muscle function. It is also considered poisonous, however, and can cause medically serious side effects. Caulophyllum species are also sometimes planted for ornamental purposes in gardens for their attractive flowers and berries.

Caulophyllum may be used to induce menstruation.
Caulophyllum may be used to induce menstruation.

Plants in the Caulophyllum genus grow from 2 to 3 feet (0.6 to 0.9 meters) tall. The yellow to purple flowers bloom in the spring and mature into blue, berry-like fruits. Each fruit houses two bitter seeds with a blue coat, and the fruits remain on the plant throughout the summer. Caulophyllum plants can live for up to 50 years, and prefer a soil that retains moisture well. In the wild, they grow in hardwood forests.

Pregnant women should not use Caulophyllum thalictroides, which can act as an abortifacient.
Pregnant women should not use Caulophyllum thalictroides, which can act as an abortifacient.

The most well known plant in the genus is C. thalictroides or Blue Cohosh, which is native to eastern North America. Its native range overlaps with that of C. giganteum, which was formerly considered a subspecies of blue cohosh. C. giganteum has a more northerly range and is a slightly larger plant, with consistently purple flowers. C. robustum is native to East Asia.

C. thalictroides has a history of medicinal use in Native American cultures. In addition to inducing childbirth, it has also been used to regulate menstruation, both to induce and to suppress menstrual flow. It has also been used as a contraceptive and abortifacient, and should not be taken by pregnant women. The toxins found in Caulophyllum species can cause cell damage and irritation of the skin and mucous membranes. Care should be taken not to allow children or pets to eat the berries or any other part of the plant.

Today, blue cohosh is used in homeopathic remedies, mainly to treat rheumatism. The herb root is macerated in alcohol and diluted. Despite the fact that it is not recommended for pregnant women, blue cohosh continues to be prescribed by some to aid labor. Homeopathy is based on the idea that like cures like, so herbs are used to treat the same symptoms or problems they would cause if taken by a healthy person. It is important to discuss any herbal supplementation with a physician before beginning to take it.

Caulophyllum has been used to induce childbirth in alternative forms of medicine.
Caulophyllum has been used to induce childbirth in alternative forms of medicine.
Niki Foster
Niki Foster

In addition to her role as a wiseGEEK editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

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