Vascular Plants of North Carolina
Account for Black Cohosh - Actaea racemosa   L.
Members of Ranunculaceae:
Members of Actaea with account distribution info or public map:
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Section 6 » Order Ranunculales » Family Ranunculaceae
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DistributionThroughout the Mountains and Piedmont, found in all such counties except for a few in the northeastern Piedmont. Ranges into the Coastal Plain only along major brownwater rivers -- the Roanoke and the Cape Fear.

This is a numerous species of the Eastern US, found in most every county within its range. It occurs from New England and IL, south to central GA nd central AR.
AbundanceCommon throughout the Mountains; fairly common to common in most of the Piedmont, though less widespread owing to fewer rich slopes in the province. Infrequent in the far northeastern Piedmont. Locally fairly common along the Roanoke River to Bertie and Martin counties, rarely to Washington County. Also locally numerous in the Cape Fear River floodplain and slopes into Harnett and Cumberland counties. Note that the NCNHP oddly has given the identical State Rank of S4 to both this species and to A. podocarpa. The latter species is not overly numerous, and it is restricted to the Mountains; on the other hand, A. racemosa is recorded from at least 65 counties, and is clearly an S5 species. This S5 rank thus "requires" NatureServe to rank this species as G5, instead of a puzzling G4.
HabitatThis is a species of rich hardwood slope forests, of a number of natural community types. It occurs in Rich Cove Forests, into Northern Hardwood Forests, Mesic Mixed Hardwood Forests, and Basic Mesic Forests. It sparingly is found in rich floodplain forests.
PhenologyBlooms from May to July, typically after the main push (March into early May) of spring-flowering herbs in rich forests, including the somewhat similar A. pachypoda; however, it finishes blooming about when the very similar A. podocarpa begins (around mid-July). Fruits shortly after blooming.
IdentificationThis is a fairly robust herbaceous species, growing to about 5 feet tall (not including the flowering stalks). As with several other members of the family, it has large, multi-divided/compound leaves, 2- to 3-times divided into very serrated leaflets. The larger leaflets are often 4-5 inches long and nearly as wide, with terminal leaflets usually 3-lobed (like a maple leaf). There are several slender racemes scattered over the plant from leaf axils, and these are very narrow and spire-shaped, white, and often about 8-10 inches long but just 1 inch wide. The many dozens of flowers are white, though the color is mostly owing to the many stamens present. To separate this species from the very similar A. podocarpa, look carefully at a flower. In A. podocarpa, there are several (3-8) ovaries, also white; however, A. racemosa has just a single ovary, in the middle of the flower. The effect is that a flower of A. podocarpa will look slightly more "spidery", as the ovaries are not much wider that the many stamens, whereas flowers of A. racemosa will look more like dozens of white spokes around a central "peg". Also, A. podocarpa has the petioles of the basal leaves with a deep and broad groove, whereas the more common A. racemosa lacks this groove. Lastly, A. podocarpa blooms well after A. racemosa; it blooms in late summer, whereas A. racemosa blooms in late spring and early summer and should be about finished blooming by mid-July, about when the less numerous species starts to bloom. This is usually an easily found species in Rich Cove Forests at low and middle elevations, mainly below 4,000 feet, the lower the elevation the better. It is reasonably easy to find on Piedmont rich slope forests as well. However, you will often run across vegetative plants in the spring, on your wildflower walks at this season, and thus you might not be certain a plant with these highly-dissected leaves is this species or another, such as one of the other two Actaea species, or possibly even Aruncus or Astilbe. These latter two have somewhat different leaf characters, but many people will have to simply wait for such plants to flower to be sure!
Taxonomic CommentsUntil recently it was named as Cimicifuga racemosa.

Other Common Name(s)Common Black-cohosh, Early Black-cohosh. The first of these would be in use if A. podocarpa were also named as a black-cohosh; however, most references name it as Mountain Bugbane, and thus A. racemosa can retain the Black Cohosh name without a modifier.
State RankS4 [S5]
Global RankG4 [G5]
State Status
US Status
County Map - click on a county to view source of record.
Photo Gallery
B.A. Sorriesame data. ClayPhoto_natural
B.A. SorrieRich woods off US 64, late June 2020. ClayPhoto_natural
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