Red Baneberry

Actaea rubra

Species distinguishing characteristics: 

  • Glossy, round, bright red or white berries with a black tip
  • Rounded clusters of white flowers with upright stalks
  • Stout leafy stems with a woody stem base
  • 2-3 deeply toothed leaflets divided into 3 lobes
  • Basal leaves inconspicuous or lacking

Family Characteristics: 

  • Numerous male (stamens) and female (pistils) organs
  • Pistils and seeds (or seed capsules) with a small spur at the tip
  • Fruit is a berry or a one celled capsule that opens along a seam
  • Many species are poisonous

Growth habitat: 

Erect perennial, 30-100 cm tall, with a woody stem base. 

Leaves and stems: 

One to multiple stout, branched, smooth to sparsely hairy stems with a woody base.  Compound leaves, consisting of 2-3 sets of 3 separated, egg-shaped, deeply toothed leaflets, 2-12 cm long.  Leaflets are hairy on the bottom surface and have a few hairs above.  Stems have 1 very low leaf and 1 or 2 middle to upper leaves alternate along the stem and are attached by long, sparsely hairy stalks.  Basal leaves are inconspicuous or lacking.

Flowers: 

Numerous creamy-white flowers attached by upright stalks on a dense, rounded flower cluster, 3-5 cm across.  Flower clusters at the end of a slender, hairless stalk, 0.5-0.8 cm long, on top of stem or from upper leaf joints.  Individual flower stalks have a small bract at the base and elongate to 1-2 cm in fruit.  Flowers, 0.5-0.8 cm across, consist of 15-50 showy white stamens (pollen organs) that protrude beyond 4-10 narrowly spoon-shaped, whitish petals (2-3 mm long), and 3-5 similar whitish-green sepals.  The sepals fall off soon after flowering.  Flowers have an evasive but pungent, rose-like fragrance.

Roots: 

Thick fleshy rhizomes and fibrous roots. 

Seeds: 

Glossy round to oval, fleshy bright red or white berries, 0.5-1.1 cm long, with a black tip.  Berries have several brown, cone-shaped seeds, 3 mm long, with a wrinkled surface.  Berries are toxic to humans; hence, the word “bane” in the common name.  Berries are occasionally referred to as Doll’s eye, particularly the white form.

Habitat preferences: 

Moderately moist, rich soils of forests, clearings, and stream or riverbanks at low to subalpine elevations.  Found in partial to full shade.

Interesting facts: 

Berries are eaten by mice, squirrels, chipmunks, and voles (all of which typically eat the seeds and discard the flesh), and by several species of birds including the American robin (Turdus migratorius), gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis), and ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus).

Ingestion of roots or a few berries can cause dizziness, cramps, headaches, vomiting, and/or bloody diarrhea.  Severe poisoning, especially through entry into the bloodstream, can result in a sedative effect on the heart muscles, causing cardiac arrest and respiratory system paralysis.  Some Native Americans used the toxic juice of red baneberry fruit to poison arrows.

Skilled Native American herbalists used red baneberry to heal despite its toxic nature.  Tea made from the roots was used to increase milk flow after childbirth, and to wash out the eyes, mouth, and nostrils of newborns.  The tea was also drunk for syphilis, menstrual cramping, heavy menstrual flow, menopausal discomfort, and to increase the appetite in cases of emaciation.  The leaves were chewed into a poultice for boils and wounds, and to stimulate blood flow to soothe arthritis and rheumatism.

Biological Classification: