Practical ecological knowledge for the temperate reader.

Baneberry - Actaea rubra

Deadly Close relative of Black Cohosh (A. racemosa)



"Actaea rubra is a PERENNIAL growing to 0.5 m (1ft 8in) by 0.3 m (1ft).
It is hardy to zone (UK) 3. It is in flower from Jun to July, and the seeds ripen from Jul to August. The flowers are hermaphrodite (have both male and female organs)
Suitable for: light (sandy), medium (loamy) and heavy (clay) soils. Suitable pH: acid, neutral and basic (alkaline) soils. It can grow in full shade (deep woodland) or semi-shade (light woodland). It prefers moist soil." [PFAF]

General "a PERENNIAL growing to 0.5 m (1ft 8in) by 0.3 m (1ft)." [PFAF] Erect to upright. [WildPNW] "hairless to sparsely hairy".[PCBC2004]
Flowers "Small, white, and numerous;" [PCBC2004] "Inflorescence of terminal and axillary, many-flowered racemes,"[IFBC][E-flora]
Fruits "Berries, red or sometimes white"[IFBC][E-flora][WildPNW] Glossy and appearing in clusters. [WildPNW]
Leaves "All stem leaves (one very low, and 1 or 2 mid- or upper-stem leaves),"[IFBC][E-flora] "pinnate with the lateral leaflets narrow and toothed". [PSW] "2-3 times divided in 3s, the segments coarsely toothed and lobed." [PCBC2004]
Stem 1 to several. [HNW] sparingly branched, leafy. [PCBC2004]
Root "fibrous roots" [IFBC][E-flora]
Properties "not eaten by any animals." [WildPNW]
Habitat "streambanks, woodlands and forests"[IFBC][E-flora] Moist shady places. [HNW]
Range "frequent throughout BC"[IFBC][E-flora] Pacific States. [WildPNW]
Status Native. [E-flora]
Ecological Indicator Shade-tolerant. "Occurs on fresh to very moist, nitrogen-rich soils within boreal, cool temperate, and cool mesothermal climates. Its occurrence increases with increasing precipitation and continentality. Occasional in broad-leaved forests on water-receiving (alluvial, floodplain, seepage, and stream-edge) sites."[IPBC][E-flora]
Similar Species "Baneberry root greatly resembles in appearance and properties the Black Cohosh (''Cimicifuga racemosa'') and has been wholly substituted for it in many cases." [HuronSmith Zuni]
Notes "The plant is usually red-fruited, however, the white-fruited forma neglecta (Gillman) Robins. can be more common in some localities."[IFBC][E-flora]



Medicinal Uses


Medicinal Uses
"The plant was often used medicinally by North American Indian tribes, though modern users should be aware of the plants potential toxicity. [222, 257]" [PFAF] Root used as "a substitute for digitalis in the treatment of fatty or irritable heart." [HuronSmith Zuni]

Use to treat;

  • Cold & Cough Duke
  • convulsions [CRNAH]
  • Headache [CRNAH]
  • Insomnia [CRNAH]
  • melancholy [CRNAH]
  • ovarian neuralgia [HuronSmith Zuni]
  • uterine tenderness [HuronSmith Zuni]


  • Allergenic (1; FAD) [HMH Duke]
  • Alterative (f; CRC) [HMH Duke]
  • Analgesic (whole plant, especially root) [PFAF][TNS]
  • Anticonvulsant (f; DEM) [HMH Duke]
  • Antirheumatic (whole plant, especially root) [PFAF]
  • Aperitif (f; DEM) [HMH Duke]
  • Circulostimulant (f; FAD) [HMH Duke]
  • Deliriant (f; FAD) [HMH Duke]
  • Emetic (1; PHR); [HMH Duke] (Root) [HuronSmith Zuni]
  • Galactogogue (whole plant, especially root) [PFAF]
  • Insectifuge (f; CRC); [HMH Duke]
  • Lactagogue (f; CRC); [HMH Duke]
  • Laxative (f; CRC; FAD; PHR); [HMH Duke]
  • Nervine (f; CRC); [HMH Duke]
  • Poison Duke
  • Purgative (Root) [HuronSmith Zuni]
  • Rubefacient (whole plant, especially root) [PFAF][TNS]
  • Spasmogenic (1; APA); [HMH Duke]
  • Vesicant (f; FAD) [HMH Duke]


  • PROTOANEMONIN Plant [Duke2]
    • protoanemonoid compound [CRNAH]
  • RANUNCULIN Plant [Duke2]
  • Resin [CRNAH]
  • Trans-aconitic acid [CRNAH]
  • "White baneberry contains a variety of unique arabinosides compounds;" [TNS]
    • Podocarpasides A - J (triterpenoid compounds) [TNS]


"Tolerates most conditions[233], but prefers a humus-rich moist soil in light shade[200, 233] doing well amongst shrubs and in light woods[1]. Also succeeds in denser shade[187]. Plants are hardy to at least -20°c[187]. A very ornamental plant[1]. Actaea rubra is part of a circumboreal complex and is very similar to the black-fruited European species A . spicata (L.) with which it is sometimes considered conspecific[270]. The western North American plants of A . rubra have been called A . arguta and were distinguished on the basis of their smaller berries, more pubescent leaves, and narrow, more dissected leaflets. Those distinctions, however, are weak; specimens from the West often have fruits and leaves similar to those of plants from the East[270]. A greedy plant, inhibiting the growth of nearby plants, especially legumes[54]."[PFAF]


"Seed - best sown as soon as it is ripe in the autumn in a cold frame or outdoors in a moist shaded seedbed[200]. The seed has a limited viability[200], it can also be sown in spring in a cold frame but germination rates may be poor. When they are large enough to handle, prick the seedlings out into individual pots and plant them out into their permanent positions in late spring or early summer of the following year. Division in March or October."[PFAF]


"Perennial herb from stout, branched caudex. Stem: 1–few, ascending to erect, branched or not. Leaf: 1–4, generally 1–3-ternate or -pinnate. Inflorescence: raceme, axillary or terminal. Flower: sepals 3–5, petal-like, early-deciduous; petals 4–10, spoon-shaped to obovate, clawed; pistil 1, placentas 2, ovules several. Fruit: berry.
± 8 species: temperate North America, Eurasia. (Greek: ancient name, from wet habitat, similarity to Sambucus leaves) Fruit TOXIC to humans." [Jepson]

Local Species;

"In Chinese medicine, sheng ma refers to rhizomes of other [than A. racemosa] Actaea species [e.g.,Actaea dahurica (Turcz. ex Fisch. & C. A. Mey.) Franch.,A. foetida L.,A. heracleifolia (Kom.) J. Compton] that are used for infectious diseases, uterine and rectal prolapse, fever, inflammation, and pain." [TNS]

Actaea asiatica (Asian Baneberry) "A prophylactic against pestilence, malaria, evil miasma." [CRNAH]

Actaea racemosa (Black Cohosh) "In the last 25 years, it has emerged as the most studied of the herbal alternatives to hormone replacement therapy for menopause symptoms." [Hudson 2008]
Hazards: Hepatoxic reactions have been recorded. Contraindicated in people with "oestrogen-sensitive tumours" and, due to lack of sufficient evidence on the contrary, "during pregnancy and breastfeeding". Black cohosh could interfere with drugs having similar or opposing effects.[HerbalMed3] The US NIH concluded in 2004 that " there was no competent evidence to support concerns about safety in the use of black cohosh in breast cancer patients and that there is inadequate evidence that black cohosh preparations are causally associated with hepatotoxicity." [Hudson 2008] "It is suggested that black cohosh only be used under professional supervision for treatment of oestrogen-dependent tumours or during pregnancy." [HNS Cohen] "Adverse reactions associated with the clinical use of pharmacological doses of black cohosh typically are rare, mild, and reversible with most symptoms involving mild gastrointestinal (GI) upset" [TNS]
Womens Complaints: "Standardized extracts of black cohosh continue to be one of the most reliable herbal approaches to treating a wide array of perimenopausal and menopausal symptoms. The most common dosage is 40 mg daily, but many achieve better results with 40 mg twice daily. One should expect results within four weeks. In my experience, about 85 percent of women will receive benefit, and maybe 50 percent will achieve complete amelioration of their hot flashes and night sweats. Black cohosh can also be safely and effectively used with hormone therapy. Lower doses of hormone therapy are often achieved by also using black cohosh extract at the same time." [Hudson 2008]
Root: "...antirheumatic, antitussive, sedative and emmenagogue properties." Used for such ailments as whooping cough, tinnitus, uterine colic, muscular rheumatism, and rheumatoid arthritis. Modern use includes peri- and postmenopausal symptoms.[HerbalMed3] This herb has been used "for rheumatism, sore throat, malaise, kidney diseases, and diseases related to the female reproductive system." [TNS]

Actaea spicata (European baneberry) does not contain protoanemonin (Frohne and pfander 2005); nevertheless, there are several documented cases of fatal poisoning in children from eating European baneberry. No deaths have been reported for the North American species. [CPPlantMus]
Activities: Antibacterial, Antiinflammatory, Antispasmodic, Cytotoxic, Deliriant, Emetic, Expectorant, Laxative, Neurosedative, Parasiticide, Poison, Stomachic. [HMH Duke]
Root: An emetic and purgative. "used in homeopathy [as dilutions of the mother tincture] for rheumatic conditions, especially those of the smaller joints." [PDR]


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