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Black Cohosh: A case of mistaken identity

Black cohosh (Actaea racemosa)

What you see above is a picture of black cohosh (Actaea racemosa) that is growing in my garden. I've had this plant for many years and what you see here are the long flower stems from last season and the seed capsules that form along these stems after the flowers drop off. These long flower stems are technically called racemes, and the species name, racemosa, was given for that reason.

Now I want to show you another plant. It may be hard for the untrained eye to see that this is different, but when I saw this flower forming, I immediately knew it was different than the black cohosh shown above.

Red baneberry (Actaea rubra)

This plant is also in the genus Actaea, but it is not Actaea racemosa. I believe it is Actaea rubra, a plant with the common name of red baneberry.

Ok, so there are 2 different plants in the same Genus, what's the big deal? The big deal is that I didn't buy red baneberry. I bought black cohosh, at least I thought I did!

When red baneberry and black cohosh are just showing their leaves in the early spring, before flower or berries develop, they are nearly impossible to distinguish from one another. Here are some more pictures.

On the left is the baneberry plant, on the right is black cohosh, both in my garden on the same day.

Now, you might be thinking that I am upset or angry that I bought what I thought was black cohosh, but ended up with red baneberry instead. On the contrary! I couldn't be more delighted, and I'll tell you why.

For many years I have asked botanists better than myself whether they are able to distinguish these plants apart when seeing them in the wild. The answer I've gotten is basically "no," not until the flower forms. There is another look-alike species too - Actaea pachypoda (doll's eyes), and before flowering, the leaves of these differing Actaea species are too similar to tell apart.

Here is what really interests me. Black cohosh is a prized medicinal. Much of what is sold in commerce to this day is wildcrafted, meaning it is gathered out of the woods, not cultivated on a farm. When wildcrafting, it is essential that plants be identified correctly. If not, what is sold on the market can be dangerous, and even life threatening.

Black cohosh does not appear to have any toxicity, but a quick search on baneberry and doll's eyes will show that these two look-alikes are poisonous.

One safety issue that black cohosh has faced are cases of idiosyncratic liver toxicity, despite the fact that when the plant itself is studied, there are no toxic compounds. My wondering about this has always been whether the cases of liver toxicity have been due to adulteration via mis-identification. I can't prove anything, but I now have my own up-close experience of how easy it is for someone believe they have black cohosh, when they really have baneberry.


Muqeet Adnan, M., Khan, M., Hashmi, S., Hamza, M., AbdulMujeeb, S., & Amer, S. (2014). Black cohosh and liver toxicity: is there a relationship?. Case reports in gastrointestinal medicine, 2014, 860614.

About me:

My name is Jillian Bar-av and I am a Registered Herbalist and Licensed Nutritionist who works with busy women to help them have the energy to do what they love. I specialize in conditions that affect the reproductive system and urinary tract, such as PCOS and Interstitial Cystitis. I believe that it takes healthy people to create a healthy planet, and I want to make a difference for both.

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