Category Archives: Baneberry (Actaea)

The bane of baneberries

Janice Schoefield, in Discovering Wild Plants suggests that you might want to plant a Baneberry (Actaea rubra) or other poisonous plant in your garden to teach children about poisonous plants. That’s an interesting strategy considering that just two berries could kill a kid. Of course, Schoefield says that usually kids won’t eat more than one berry because of the taste, unless they accidentally throw them in their bucket and mix them up with cranberries. You still can pick them out if you’re looking for them. I’m not sure how I feel about planting poisonous plants in the garden. At least with my kids who are always testing the limits. But I do like the idea of training my kids while they’re young. I’m realizing that my fear of a couple of poisonous berries has kept me from trying a lot of edible berries because they kinda looked alike. If I was more familiar with the poisonous ones, then perhaps I would’ve been more adventurous with trying other edible berries.

Schoefield, J. 2007. Discovering wild plants: Alaska, Western Canada, the Northwest. Alaska Northwest Books., Portland.

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The Baneberry

The Red Baneberry (Actaea rubra)

My property contains a diverse collection of wild berries that I am starting to become familiar with so that in the future landscaping of my yard I can incorporate these wild stands to the best of my ability. There are high and low bush cranberries, raspberries, currants, red baneberries and at least one more berry that I think is possibly dwarf dogwood berries. The berries I am most concerned about are the red baneberries and that is because I know they are toxic and I know my son is extremely curious about everything (he already ate a baneberry on his second birthday which I spent about 30 minutes over-reacting on the phone with poison control).

The Actaea rubra commonly called red or white baneberry grows on a bushy plant with large divided leaves that have jagged edges and it grows around 1-2 tall and wide. Small round clusters of white flowers grow near leaf axils and at the ends of stems. The stamens of the flower give it a fluffy almost feathery appearance and they are quite pretty. The berries grow at the ends of tall thick stems in spherical bundles of beautiful red or white berries. They are very pretty and could be used ornamentally if I was not concerned with future ingestion.

The baneberry can be propagated by root or sown by seed, which may take 2 years to germinate and can begin to flower in the third year. Some lab studies have shown that only about 9% of seeds will germinate and “survival rates are 50% in sun while 64.3% in the shade” (Crane M.F. 1990). These berries are deciduous perennials and their broad width provides good ground coverage for small ground foraging birds and mammals. Red baneberries are consumed by many songbirds and small mammals but are toxic to people.

The red baneberry contains a poisonous essential oil in all of the plants parts but with higher concentration in the berries and roots. If ingested in large quantities they could have adverse effects to the nervous system. Some symptoms include; irritation of the mouth and throat, nausea, stomach cramping, headache, dizziness, diarrhea, increased heart rate, etc. (Crane M.F. 1990). Some European species have been known to be fatal to small children but there have been no known reports of baneberries being fatal to humans or livestock in the United States (NPIN). Luckily my son only ate one and had no symptoms.

My yard goals are still not clear to me yet as we are just building our house and planning for the future but I would really like to keep most the berries that grow naturally here. Unfortunately as beautiful as the baneberry bushes are I do think I will be trying to eliminate them from the yard to keep small curious children safe. I worry that in my attempts to get rid of the baneberries I will damage the other berries and so I am curious to learn about safe transplanting and elimination processes.  LH Fairbanks

Baneberry growing in a garden. White blooms in June. Red balls of fruit in late summer. Plants in the woods are taller, more open, but still have the characteristic dissected foliage. Berries are borne at the top of the bushy stems that can be 18 inches to 3 feet tall depending on the amount of shade.

The bunchberry, Cornus canadensis, is a ground cover that creeps along the forest floor. The leaves are quite distinct from the baneberry being in a rosette at the top of a very short stem– maybe 4-6 inches tall. They, too have red berries. They are edible but not palatable. They are located in bunches close to the ground.

cornus-canadensis-copyCrane, M. F.  1990.  Actaea rubra.  In: Fire Effects Information System. Online. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available: http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/. Accessed September 11, 2016.

“NPIN: Native Plant Database.” Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. N.p., n.d. Web. Available: http://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=ACRU2. Accessed on September 11, 2016.