Horticulture Highlight: Bugbane, Black Cohosh

July 13, 2022

Horticulture Highlight: Actaea racemosa, Bugbane, Black Cohosh 

twisted like a mobius  

belt, before insinuating your noxious 

nectar – omnivorous, odoriferous, officious 

orifice-filler, you… 

-Mark Levine 

While in bloom, Actaea racemosa, Bugbane, Black Cohosh, with tall stems and long fleecy flowers is truly eye-catching. These same blossoms emit an unpleasant odor. Centuries ago, some thought this smell could repel insects, hence one common name bugbane. The non-entomological etymology has a basis from Algonquin Native Americans. Cohosh is derived from co-os, meaning pine tree, alluding to the pointed spikes. 

green leaves and white flowers

Its scientific identity has included taxonomic transference. It was originally classified as Actaea racemosa by notable Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus (1707 -1778) in his foundational 1753 publication, Species Plantarum. Three score-years later, English botanist Thomas Nuttall (1786-1859) transferred this species to the genus Cimicifuga in 1818, hence long known as Cimicifuga racemosa. More recent gene-sequence data has resulted in reinstatement of this and the other species of Cimicifuga back into the genus Actaea. This all occurred within the RANUNCULACEAE, the buttercup family, which also includes the genera of anemone, hellebore and yellowroot which we have previously reviewed.   

Discussions of names aside, this perennial is native to eastern North America from southern Ontario to central Georgia, Massachusetts to Missouri. The summertime blooms are elegant racemes of multiple white flowers which have been described by notable garden writer Allen Lacey (1935-2015) as, “…like ivory candles glowing in the shade…” The tiny individual flowers are without petals, but having many stamens creating a fluffy white effect. 

white flowers

Without advocating any current medicinal use, we recount that this plant has been included in historic references of using plants for healing by Native Americans before European settlement until today. Between 1820 and 1926 this plant appeared in the U. S. pharmacopoeia. A web search can expound on purported herbal uses. 

On a future visit to Mount Auburn look for Actaea racemosa, Bugbane, Black Cohosh at Asa Gray Garden, Sumac Path, Ivy Path, Dell Path and Vesper Path. 

About the Author: Jim Gorman

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