Distinguishing Black Cohosh from Look-Alikes

by Karen Johnson Heeter 1, Laura Price 2, and Sunshine Brosi, PhD 3,
1 Graduate Student, 2 Undergraduate Student, 3 Associate Professor
Ethnobotany Program, Frostburg State University, Frostburg, Maryland, USA

Figure 1. Leaves of black cohosh (Actaea racemosa) on the left and two look-alike species, mountain bugbane (Actaea podocarpa) (middle) and doll’s eye (Actaea pachypoda) (right) for comparison. A. racemosa: Leaflets do not overlap each other and terminal leaf sinus is approximately ½ the length of the entire terminal leaflet. A. podocarpa: Leaflets, with cordate bases, overlap one another and terminal leaf sinus is greater than ½ the length of the entire terminal leaflet. A. pachypoda: Leaflets do not overlap one another and terminal leaf sinus lacking or is less than ½ the length of the entire terminal leaflet.

Black cohosh (Actaea racemosa L., Ranunculaceae), is an herbaceous, medicinal plant found within the understory of rich, moist woods throughout North America (Foster, 1999; Strausbaugh et al. 1978). Its native range runs from Maine to Florida to as far west as Iowa. As an endemic species, it contributes to the richly diverse ethnobotanical history of Appalachia, being used for a broad range of ailments. The Algonquians, Cherokee, and Iroquois used the rhizome for hives, kidney troubles, backaches, constipation, colds, and rheumatism (Hamel and Chiltoskey 1975; Mooney & Olbrechts 1932; Speck 1917). Today, the rhizomes are primarily harvested for their commercial value as dietary supplements, which are typically used for menopausal complaints, such as hot flashes (Chamberlain et al., 2013; Verbitski et al., 2008; Shou et al., 2011).

Annual market values establish black cohosh as one of the top ten selling herbal supplements in the U.S. and such high demand raises concerns about the sustainability of massive-scale wild harvesting (Blumenthal et al., 2011; Qiu et al., 2014; Foster, 2013). Annual harvests of black cohosh can equate to as much as 500,000 pounds in dry weight per year, 97% of which is being sourced from wild habitat (Greenfield & Davis, 2003; Davis & Persons, 2014; American Herbal Products Association, 2000, 2003).

Black cohosh is critically imperiled in Mississippi, Massachusetts, and Illinois, where it is also state listed as endangered (NatureServe, 2017; Massachusetts List of Endangered, Threatened and Special Concern Species, 2015; Checklist of Illinois Endangered and Threatened Animals and Plants, 2015).

Wild harvesting proposes a particular health threat as supplements may be cross-contaminated with other species. For instance, DNA sequencing used to analyze black cohosh supplements found that 3 out of 7 capsules tested did not contain any black cohosh DNA (Harnly et al (2015). One supplement contained a species native to China (Actaea brachycarpa (P.K.Hsiao) J.Compton), while another contained only rice DNA (Harnly et al., 2015). In addition, several species of North American Actaea are easily mistaken for black cohosh. These include mountain bugbane (Actaea podocarpa D.C.), Appalachian bugbane (Actaea rubifolia (Kearney) Kartesz), doll’s eye (Actaea pachypoda Elliott), and red baneberry (Actaea rubra (Aiton) Willd) (Upton, 2002).

Mountain bugbane has a native range that runs from Pennsylvania to Georgia to as far west as Illinois. It is typically found at high elevations on western slopes of the Allegheny Mountains (Strausbaugh et al. 1978). It is listed as endangered in Illinois, imperiled in Maryland, and vulnerable in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Georgia (NatureServe, 2017; Checklist of Illinois Endangered and Threatened Animals and Plants, 2015). Mountain bugbane is often found under eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis L. Carrière), which is facing declines due to the hemlock woolly adelgid (Adelges tsugae), an invasive insect (Evans & Gregoire, 2007). This poses an additional threat of overstory habitat loss.

Appalachian bugbane is also typically confined to western slopes. Its native range runs from Illinois to Alabama to as far east as Virginia (Strausbaugh et al. 1978). This species is imperiled in Illinois, Kentucky, and Virginia and critically imperiled in Indiana (Nature- Serve, 2017). Appalachian bugbane is also experiencing declines throughout its ranges due to habitat fragmentation (NatureServe, 2017).

The native range of doll’s eye, a look-alike that is toxic, runs from Minnesota to Florida to as far west as Nebraska. It is listed as imperiled in Louisiana and critically imperiled in Delaware, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and Florida (NatureServe, 2017). The unintentional harvest of doll’s eye is concerning because all parts of the plant are toxic when ingested and can cause vomiting, diarrhea, and seizures (Dirckx, 1991).

Red baneberry has an expansive range and is found in many of the western, lower 48-states. It is listed as vulnerable in Pennsylvania and Illinois and imperiled in Ohio and Indiana (NatureServe, 2017). Red baneberry is also toxic, especially for children, and ingestion can lead to severe gastroenteritis or death. (Droppo 1987; Johnson et al. 1995; Turner, 1997).

Floras focus on separating these species based on reproductive characteristics which may not be present on every plant or at the time of harvesting. Vegetative characteristics separating these species can be found on Figure 1 and Table 1. Black cohosh has the distinction of non-overlapping leaflets, unlike mountain bugbane. The terminal leaflet sinus of mountain bugbane is also greater than ½ the length of the terminal leaflet, unlike black cohosh or doll’s eye. Black cohosh also has a smooth basal stalk, without the groove found in mountain bugbane. The ability to distinguish these species from leaf characteristics may aid in the conservation of species of concern as well as benefit public health due to reducing contamination.

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heeterKaren Johnson Heeter has a B.S in Ethnobotany and is a current graduate student at Frostburg State University, studying Applied Ecology and Conservation Biology. Her research includes rare Appalachian plants and old-growth forests in the eastern United States. Contact: kejohnson@ frostburg.edu

laura-priceLaura Price was raised in Appalachia near the New River George in West Virginia. She has a B.A. in Sociology from West Virginia Wesleyan College and is currently attending Frostburg State University for a B.S. in Ethnobotany. Contact: lmprice0@ frostburg.edu

dr-brosiDr. Brosi is an Associate Professor of Ethnobotany and Forest Ecology at Frostburg State University. She coordinates the only Ethnobotany Program in the United States. She has a Ph.D. in Natural Resources from the University of Tennessee, a M.S. in Forestry from the University of Kentucky, and a B.A. in Environmental Science from Warren Wilson College. Contact: slbrosi@frostburg.edu