Medical Herbs Catalogue



Botanical Name: Actaea spicata (LINN.)
Family: N.O. Ranunculacea

Synonyms: Herb Christopher. Bugbane. Toadroot.
Part Used: Root.
Habitat: It is to be found in copses on limestone in Yorkshire and the Lake District, but is so uncommon as to be regarded by some botanists as almost a doubtful native.

The Baneberry, or Herb Christopher, is a rather rare British plant belonging (like the Paeony) to the Buttercup order, but distinguished from all other species in the order by its berry-like fruit. It is considered to have similar anti-spasmodic properties to the Paeony.

Description: The black, creeping root-stock is perennial, sending up each year erect stems, growing 1 to 2 feet high, which are triangular and either not branched, or very sparingly so. The foot-stalks of the leaves are long and arise from the root. These divide into three smaller foot-stalks, and are so divided or re-divided that each leaf is composed of eighteen, or even twenty-seven, lobes or leaflets.

The flower-stem arises from the roots and has leaves of the same form, but smaller. The flowers grow in spikes and are of a pure white.

The whole plant is dark green and glabrous (without hairs), or only very slightly downy. It flowers in June and in autumn ripens its fruits, which are egg-shaped berries, 1/2 inch long, black and shining, many-seeded and very poisonous, well justifying the popular name of Baneberry.

The plant is of an acrid, poisonous nature throughout, and though the root has been used in some nervous cases, and is said to be a remedy for catarrh, it must be administered with great caution.

Medicinal Action and Uses: Antispasmodic. The juice of the berries, mixed with alum, yields a black dye.

There are two varieties of this species, one of British origin, only distinguished from the rest of the species by its berries being red, instead of black and the other an American plant (Actaea alba, or White Cohosh) with white berries. Both varieties grow in the writer's garden.

The American species is considered by the natives a valuable remedy against snake-bite, especially of the rattlesnake, hence it is - with several other plants - sometimes known as one of the 'Rattlesnake herbs.'

It is said the name 'Herb Christopher' was also formerly applied to the flowering fern, Osmunda regalis.

The name of the genus is from the Greek acte, the elder, which these plants resemble as regards the leaves and berries.

Toads seem to be attracted by the smell of the Baneberry, which causes it also to be termed Toadroot, the name arising possibly also from its preference for the damp shady situations in which the toad is found.

It is also called Bugbane, because of its offensive smell, which is said to drive away vermin.

Closely allied to this plant, and at one time assigned to the same genus, is the plant known as Black Cohosh.