Category Archives: Poisonous Berries

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.

Poisonous Nightshade

Toxicity of Nightshade Berries

Nightshade berries Solanum dulcamara)  are one of the most ingested poisonous berries in Minnesota.Ripened and unripened nightshade berries are given to mice in this study, during various seasons. Unripened fruit late in season seemed to show most behavioral differences.

Collins, James E., Hornfeldt, Carl S. 2008. “Toxicity of Nightshade Berries (Solanum Dulcamara) in Mice.” Journal of Toxicology: Clinical Toxicology. 28(2):185-192.

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: Accessed September 11, 2016.

“NPIN: Native Plant Database.” Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. N.p., n.d. Web. Available: Accessed on September 11, 2016.


If you’re going to go out picking from a wild stand, make sure you can tell the difference between edible and poisonous berries. Of particular concern in the Interior would be the baneberry. Here are a couple links with photos: Baneberry

Baneberry vs. Highbush Cranberry

High bush cranberries and baneberries Anyone who as thumbed through a book or perused a website about Alaska berries knows about baneberries.  They are highly poisonous and to be avoided at all costs.  I figured that was simple enough to do.  Baneberries seemed distinctive from other berries.  They could easily be spotted and distinguished on their own in the woods.  I thought they shouldn’t be difficult to avoid.  Recently I was picking high bush cranberries and learned how easy it could be to mistakenly add some baneberries to your highbush cranberry harvest.  The baneberry plants were growing alongside the high bush cranberries and the branches intertwined.  Both berries have black dots in the center of the red.  The high bush cranberries are translucent while the baneberries are opaque, but the distinction is small.  Both berries were soft at the time I was picking.   The leaves of the plants are shaped differently, but have a lot of similarities and are difficult to distinguish from one another when you are in the bushes and everything around you is green.   It seemed easy enough that when reaching for a handful of cranberries, one might pick one or two of the baneberries as well.   Being that small amounts can do lots of damage, it was alarming.  Luckily we were paying close enough attention and avoided any trouble.  The highbush cranberry bushes were very tall in that area and the baneberry plants were all below the waste.  I passed over all the high bush cranberries that were growing low and discarded any somewhat questionable berries.  I rechecked when cleaning the highbush cranberries at home.  When juicing the berries for jelly, I didn’t come across any different looking seeds. has an entry that warns about this possible confusion    Alaska poisonous plants