Will the Real Black Snakeroot Please Stand Up?

This plant was labeled Black Snakeroot (Cimicifuga racemosa) at Chicago Botanic Garden on 25 July 2008. This species has been also called Black Cohosh or Bugbane.

Tall, tapered spires of fragrant, white flowers on wiry stems rise above a doily of dark green, doubly tri-leaved foliage that radiates from a central stalk.  It typically grows 5-6’ tall, in bloom in July and August.

Rare in the Chicago region, In nature it is found in mesic woods situated on north and east-facing slopes in the dense shade of Sugar Maple and Red Oak.

Black Snakeroot (Cimicifuga racemosa) in the home landscape.(The plants were purchased and planted June 2008)

At the time, 28 September 2008, I also took this to be Black Snakeroot (Cimicifuga racemosa) at the Morton Arboretum.  Subtle differences, though–it doesn’t grow as tall–3-4’ rather than 5-6’; it blooms in September rather than July; the flower racemes are shaped more like a cylindrical bottlebrush than a spire and they have no fragrance; all of which leads me to believe it to be Cimicifuga simplex, a non-native from Russia, China, Korea, and Japan.

My garden, 28 September. 2010.    Sold to me as Cimicifuga racemosa, but now I believe it, too, is Cimicifuga simplex.  Blooms in September.  Another common name is Autumn Snakeroot.

Last year in the severe drought, both my plants turned completely brown and collapsed; only one came back this spring: It has recovered completely.

All plants in the genus Cimicifuga have recently been transferred to the genus Actaea.   (from Missouri Botanical Garden)

My question:s  Who transfers them?  Who decides?  Is there a vote?

Taxonomy is the science of systematically naming and organizing organisms into similar groups.  Plant taxonomy is an old science that uses the gross morphology (physical characteristics, [i.e., flower form, leaf shape, fruit form, etc.]) of plants to separate them into similar groups.

Genera (plural of genus) are groupings whose members have more characteristics in common with each other than they do with other genera within the same family.  Similarity of flowers and fruits is the most widely used feature, although roots, stems, buds, and leaves are also used.

The science of plant taxonomy is being absorbed into the new science of systematics.  The development of more sophisticated microscopes and laboratory chemical analyses has made this new science possible.  Systematics is based on the evolutionary similarities of plants such as chemical make-up and reproductive features.

Most name changes reflect taxonomic decisions, but people that do not agree with the decision may continue to use the existing name.

Colorado Master Gardener Program | Yard and Garden Publications | CMG  #122

Does this mean the systematic scientists don’t look at the actual plant in the field?

It seems to me, this is a technology vs. reality situation.

What is the Cimicifuga Racemosa Plant?

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 that are dry follicles.

from Garden Guides.com

So the flowers and fruit of Cimicifuga and Actea are completely different, but the chemical makeup is similar?  And that’s the basis to declare that Cimicifuga is really an Actea?

Technology vs. reality?

This is the plant that has always been called Actea.


White Baneberry (Actea pachypoda) in bloom  at The Natural Garden.


White Baneberry in Bliss Woods in Sugar Grove.  May 2010

The May-blooming, feathery flower racemes of Actea pachypoda or White Baneberry or Doll’s Eyes are only 1-2”  long; its black-eyed, white berries, arranged on thick red stalks in late July and August, from which the name “doll’s eyes” comes from,  are more notable than its flowers.  White Baneberry and its cousin, the rarer Red Baneberry (Actea rubra), are also denizens of rich, mesic woods.    Beware, the berries of both plants are poisonous.

White Baneberry (Doll’s Eyes) berries (photo by Jack Shouba)

These Actea berries are quite distinctive, yet Cimicifuga has no berries, but it is an Actea?.

Technology vs. Reality?

I  invite those of you who live in northeastern Illinois to: attend our Wild Ones meeting tonight:

Join us for a tour of Hickory Knolls Discovery in St. Charles on Thursday, July 25, at 6:30 pm.  Pam Otto, naturalist and head of interpretive services, will lead us on a tour of this 10,500 square foot, silver LEED nature center, the first so qualified in Kane County.  Open just a little over two years, Hickory Knolls is situated on the western edge of St. Charles on land rich in geologic history and home to beautifully restored native prairies, wetlands and woodlands. The outside of the building is planted with native shrubs and plants as well as a rain garden and small Buffalo grass lawn. The Discovery Center is built with geothermal heating and cooling, tankless water heaters, motion sensors on light and plumbing fixtures and other ecological and green construction.  For those interested, there will be a short hike after the tour to see some of the beautiful land surrounding The Discovery Center.  The nature center is part of the St. Charles Park District and is located at 3795 Campton Hills Drive., just west of the intersection of Peck Road and Campton Hills Drive.  Enter off either Peck or Campton Hills Drive and follow the signs west to the Discovery Center.  There is no cost for this tour.  Phone number for Discovery Center is:  630-513-4399.

Maybe we’ll even see some Ccimicifuga racemosa.



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