Black snakeroot, Cimicifuga racemosa, is a tall-growing perennial wildflower native to the southeastern North America and has several common names. Although recently renamed Actaea racemosa by plant taxonomists, these names are synonymous in literature. The white finger-like flower spikes appear in late summer and are attractive--later yielding small brown berries that contain toxins.
Classification and Nomenclature
Cimicifuga racemosa is the botanical name of a plant commonly called black cohosh, black dogbane, black snakeroot or black baneberry. It is a member of the buttercup family, Ranunculaceae.
Modern plant taxonomists have re-classified this plant species so that recent literature lists the botanical name as Actaea racemosa. The plant group or genus Actaea differs from Cimicifuga. Members of Actea have petals lacking lobes and produce berries, whereas those in the Cimicifuga genus have two-clefted petals and fruits are dry follicles.
This perennial wildflower is native to the eastern United States, from western Massachusetts to Lake Erie and southward to central Georgia (never along the coast). Isolated pockets of this plant species are also known around Chicago, Illinois, and the Ozark Mountains of Missouri and Arkansas. In Canada it is found only in extreme southern Ontario around Lake Erie.
Cimicifuga racemosa grows in moist, mixed deciduous forests and moist meadowlands, along the edges of streams and forest margins--especially in mountainous terrain.
This herbaceous perennial grows into an upright clump of wiry stems to a height of 4 to 6 feet, sometimes to 8 feet. Its roots are fleshy, lateral storage stems called rhizomes. The dark green glossy leaves are comprised of three jagged-edged leaflets. In late summer to early fall, the stem tips bear a long, finger-like spike of tiny white or greenish white flowers that have a musky, somewhat offensive odor. Multiple side spikes often develop from the base of the first flower spike, intensifying the floral display, attracting butterflies and insects for pollination. Flowers develop into brown berry-like seeds.
Hardiness and Growing Requirements
Cimicifuga racemosa is regarded as hardy to USDA Zones 3 through 8. Ample winter cold is required during dormancy for prolonged plant health year after year. It grows well in regions with cool summers and equally in those that are hot, long and humid.
Grow this perennial in fertile, moist to wet soils that are loam or clay-based. Soil pH can range from acidic to moderately alkaline (5.5 to 8.0). Organic matter improves the health and vigor of plants.
This perennial is used widely as an upright accent plant in a shaded woodland flower border or to vegetate moist to wet soil areas on a property. Plants tolerate more direct sunlight if soil is fertile and wet.
Traditionally, Native Americans used infusions of Cimicifuga racemosa medicinally to stimulate menstruation and promote milk production in women and to treat rheumatic pains, coughs and colds, constipation, and kidney trouble.