Sunday, July 8, 2012

Crazy Plants: White Baneberry

The white baneberry (Actaea pachypoda) is also known as the doll's eye
Ripening berries
The white baneberry is a plant found throughout the Eastern United States and Canada, extending out to Nebraska and Oklahoma at its most western range. In addition, its range extends from Florida all the way north to Quebec. They are also found in parts of Europe. The most unusual feature of this plant is perhaps the appearance of its fruit. When ripe, they resemble eyes, which is why one of the other common names of the white baneberry is the doll's eye. The berries are red when not fully ripe and sometimes will remain red even after ripening. To make things more confusing, the species is quite similar in appearance to the red baneberry, which, despite its name, can have white berries. The most effective way of telling them apart is based on stalk diameter. Red baneberry plants will have thinner stalks than the white baneberry.

As I was taught as a child: never ever eat white berries as they are almost invariably toxic. This rule holds true for the white baneberry, where eating as few as five of the fruits will make you very ill and eating more than that can potentially kill you. Though tea was once made from the plant's roots as a folk remedy, every part of this plant is toxic and thus should be avoided. Symptoms following ingestion include a burning sensation in the throat and mouth, headache, dizziness, salivation, hallucinations, stomach cramps, and diarrhea.

As the plants grow in average soil and low light, they are adapted to best make use of what they have, and thus have abnormally large roots to absorb as many nutrients as possible. The flowers of the baneberry plant are rather pretty white clusters and are seen in May and June. Fruit production follows, beginning in July. Though toxic to humans, the berries are dispersed by animals that can tolerate the fruits: mainly rodents and birds.

This plant is currently listed as Threatened in New York and Endangered in Florida. It is common in many other areas of its native range.

Sources are the United States Department of Agriculture, University of Texas at Austin Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, Ontario Wildflowers, and Skidmore College North Woods Wiki. Images are from Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons licenses: one, two, three.

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