Identifying Black Cohosh and Red and White Baneberry
Answered by: Inge Poot
Question from: Paul Harris
Posted on: December 07, 2007

I have always had trouble determining the difference between black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa) and red and white baneberry (Actaea pachypoda and A. rubra). Could you explain the differences for identification, as well as the differences in medicinal properties? Another name for black cohosh is bugbane which is again close to baneberry and the leaves appear similar. The flower spike on Black cohosh appears longer. Other than this I am not sure. Some books seem to say that baneberry is poisonous, so I have never collected black cohosh (though I have seen lots of plants that are either it or baneberry) because I might make a mistake.

When the plants are in fruit they are easy to tell apart. The black cohosh has a bean-shaped capsule as a fruit, the white baneberry has white berries (on fat red stems), the red baneberry has red berries on thin stems. In bloom they are harder to tell apart. The black cohosh has at least 30 flowers on a mature plant and the flowers have a more fuzzy appearance than the baneberries and the flower stem is much longer. The baneberries have short inflorescences with about 10-20 flowers per inflorescence and the flower stems tend to be short with the flowers crowded at the top of the stem. The stems of the white baneberry are fat even at that stage. But take care, since in the Toronto area the white and red baneberry both occur and they hybridize happily. So you get a merry mix of characters here in Southern Ontario.

Out of bloom is hardest to tell them apart. All have toothed leaflets and all have compound leaves, composed of three branches with each branch adorned with 5 leaflets -in the mature plant. The black cohosh sometimes has more than the 5 leaflets per branch. The baneberries have the top leaflet with a simple spindle-shape, while the black cohosh has the top leaflet usually with two deep sinuses (indentations) and often some of the other leaflets of the 5 per branch may be sub-divided into 3 leaflets as well. Also in some red baneberries the top three leaflets may not be completely separated and in this case may be confused with the three-lobed top leaflet of the baneberries. Just remember any of this may not hold true for an immature plant. The red baneberry has wider leaflets than the white baneberry. The end leaflet of the red baneberry is about 1.5 times as long as it is wide, while for the white baneberry the top leaflet is about 2.5 times as long as it is wide. For the hybrids it is all mixed up.

As for their uses, black cohosh has estrogenic, hypoglycemic, sedative and anti-inflammatory properties. Do not use without a doctor’s advice. It can be used as a bug repellent. I do not know of any medicinal use of baneberries.

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