Caulophyllum thalictroides (L ) Michx.—Blue cohosh
FAMILY: Berberidaceae—the Barberry Family
Composed of about 12 genera and 200 species in the north temperate zone, this family is distinguished by two series of stamens, the outer whorl occurring opposite the petals. The calyx and corolla also may be in two whorls. The anthers shed pollen by valves, flowers possess a single pistil, and in most genera the stamen number is equal to the number of petals. The exception is Podophyllum, in which the stamen number is twice that of the petals. Economically the family contributes 13 genera of ornamental plants. Ripe fruits of Podophyllum (May apple) are edible (preserves and beverages) but leaves and roots are poisonous; Berberis (barberry) fruits are edible; Caulophyllum (blue cohosh) seeds are poisonous when raw but considered safe when roasted and used as a substitute for coffee beans. Flowers in the family have perfect symmetry, and free parts; sepals: 4 or 6; petals: as many as or more than the sepals, sometimes reduced to nectaries; ovary: 1,1-celled, superior; ovules: 1-many.
PHENOLOGY: The single species flowers April and May.
DISTRIBUTION: Blue cohosh is common in the rich, moist deciduous woods of northeastern U. S.
PLANT CHARACTERISTICS: Caulophyllum is an erect, graceful perennial, from a small knotty rootstock, growing to 1 m high; glaucous when young; flowers: yellowish green or greenish purple with six petaloid sepals, subtended by 3-4 sepal-like bracts; the six petals are reduced to small glandlike bodies; stamens: 6; seeds: dark blue, on stalks as long as the seeds. The erect stem bears a single large, sessile, triternate leaf resembling 3 biternate leaves.
POISONOUS PARTS: The leaves and raw seeds contain toxins.
SYMPTOMS: Severe gastroenteritis and stomach pains result from consumption of the poisonous parts.
POISONOUS PRINCIPLES: The poisonous parts contain the alkaloid methylcytisine and various glycosides.
CONFUSED TAXA: The flower and seed characteristics described above make it unlikely that blue cohosh will be readily confused with other plants.
SPECIES OF ANIMALS AFFECTED: Although the plant is quite bitter, poisoning in children has been reported due to ingestion.
TREATMENT: (11a)(b); (26)
OF INTEREST: The North American Indians used a root extract of this plant as an abortifacient and to promote menstruation.