Sheng Ma

Botanical name: Cimicifuga heracleifolia
Common name: Cimicifuga, Bugbane, Black Cohosh
Literal name translation: ascending hemp

Family: Ranunculaceae, ranuncula family
Part used in Chinese medicine:  rhizome

Major Chinese medicine actions:
Disperses the exterior, raises yang qi, lifts sinking middle qi,
clears heat, resolves toxin

Sheng Ma

Sheng Ma
Photo Credits: (top to bottom)
Photo 1: Cimicifuga heracleifolia; author Andre Karwath, permission under GFDL
Photo 2: Cimicifuga heracleifolia; author Andre Karwath, permission under GFDL

Comments:
Cimicifuga is a genus of 18 species of perennial clumping plants. It is included in both the Western and Eastern herbal materia medica, though different species are used. In Chinese medicine, the rhizomes of several species are used for the herb Sheng Ma, including Cimicifuga heracleifolia, C. dahurica, C. foetida, and less commonly, C. simplex and C. yunanensis. In Western herbal medicine, it is the root of Cimicifuga racemosa that is generally used.

Pictured above, photos are of Cimicifuga heracleifolia, a medicinal variety native to East Asia from eastern Russia to northern China. When cultivated as an ornamental plant in Western gardens, Cimicifuga simplex is the common variety grown as it is the most showy, with tall spires of creamy white to purplish tinted flowers and foliage that ranges from green to very dark purple.

Growing and Propagation

Cimicifuga plants grow natively in damp, shady, light woodland environments, preferring humus rich, fertile soil and part shade. The plants require moisture to grow well. Cimicifuga heracleifolia and C. foetida have pure white flowers that bloom August to September on spikes up to 24 inch tall. Plants grow 2-6 feet high and 20-32 inches wide. Seeds also ripen from August to September. Plants are hardy in USDA zones 3-8.

Seeds should be sown in a cold frame as soon as they are ripe as they have a short viability and do not store well. They should be barely covered with dirt and will take 1-12 months or longer to germinate. Germination will be enhanced if seeds are first treated with a 6-8 week period of warm stratification followed 8 weeks of cold stratification. Young seedlings can be grown in pots over their first winter, and then planted outside in late spring or early summer. Plants may also be propagated by division in spring or autumn.

Harvesting and Preparation

Sheng Ma may be used dried, or prepared with honey (mi shi sheng ma), charred (sheng ma tan), or dry-fried (chao sheng ma), each form having slightly different medicinal functions. Good quality rhizomes are large, compact and cleaned of small root hairs. They should have a brownish black surface and a yellowish green cross section.