Did you identify the red baneberry as the featured plant in national park mystery plant quiz #5? Here are some more interesting facts about this widely-distributed beauty with the toxic berries.
Red baneberry (Actaea rubra) is a member of the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae). Both the red baneberry and its close relative the white baneberry (Actaea alba) have toxic properties if ingested and pose potentially serious hazards for the unwary.
Because red baneberry and white baneberry are commonly found growing near each other, people commonly lump the two species together in the general category “baneberry” when talking about the plants and their hazards. In point of fact, they may not say “baneberry” at all. Depending on the geographic area, the baneberry may go by a variety of different names (including misnomers) such as bugbane, chinaberry, dolls eye, cohosh, or herb Christopher.
Like all members of the buttercup family, baneberry fruits and foliage contain ranunculin, a substance that yields the highly irritating toxin protoanemonin when any part of the plant is chewed, crushed, pulped, or otherwise damaged. All parts of the plant are poisonous, but the berries and roots are especially toxic, with the degree of toxicity varying with the time of year and other influences.
Sensitivity to the toxin varies with age, weight, physical condition, and the individual’s susceptibility. Because of their small size, children are most vulnerable to the baneberry’s toxic effects. This is compounded by inexperience and curiosity, which may lead children to take risks adults will not. Although no baneberry poisoning fatalities or serious injuries have been reported in North America, there have been some cases of children dying from baneberry poisoning in Europe.
Cardiac arrest is a possibility if a small child consumes as few as two to six berries (or a particularly susceptible adult gets a strong enough dose), but victims typically experiences only discomforting symptoms. In addition to burning and possible blistering of the mouth and throat, the victim may suffer from some combination of excessive salivation, headache, dizziness, gastrointestinal distress (nausea, stomach cramps, diarrhea), vomiting, temporary memory loss and confusion, and hallucinations.
Sedative effects of the chemicals may also be apparent in some cases. This is a significant concern with severe poisoning, since the toxins can cause respiratory failure, ventricular fibrillation (an often fatal arrhythmia), or relaxation of the heart muscle to the point of cardiac arrest.
Fortunately, the bitter taste and burning sensation that people get when they nibble the berries makes ingestion very unlikely. While children can be at great risk if they swallow even a few berries, a healthy adult would probably have to swallow half a dozen or so to be seriously poisoned. Anxiety and fright may lead victims to seek medical attention, but it is seldom needed on an emergency basis. Baneberry poisoning symptoms tend to dissipate fairly quickly, generally within a few hours, and are unlikely to cause any long-term damage.
Like many other plants with potent chemical properties, the baneberry has played a role in aboriginal and folk medicine. The prepared root has been used to treat menstrual cramps and menopausal discomforts. Since the baneberry has both emetic and purgative effects, it can be used to achieve the cleansing effects of vomiting and diarrhea (although it’s likely that other readily available plants would be chosen as a safer, less harsh way to get the job done).
American Indians made at least one other use of the baneberry. Because the berry juice is toxic and has a sedative effect, it was sometimes used in concentrated form to poison projectile points.
Since the red baneberry is an attractive bushy plant with showy white flowers and pretty red berries, it is sometimes used as an ornamental planting. The seeds are commercially available.