A lot of folklore pertaining to whether a wild plant is edible or medicinal exists. One common saying states that all red berries are edible – or I have also heard that all red fruits are edible. Wrong!!These sweeping generalities do not hold true. The only way to safely eat or utilize wild plants is to learn to recognize them at all stages of development, and be 110% certain of what you are eating or using.
The baneberry (Actaea rubra) is a toxic red berry or fruit. Baneberries contain propoanemonin, a poison that can cause cramps, headache, vomiting, bloody diarrhea and dizziness after eating as few as two berries. Ingesting larger quantities can cause paralysis of the respiratory system and cardiac arrest. North American natives used the juice of baneberry fruits to poison the tips of their arrows. All parts of the plant are poisonous with the berries being the most toxic. The common name comes from the Anglo-Saxon word “bana” meaning “murderous”.
Also called chinaberry, A. rubra root was used by indigenous people to relieve menstrual cramps and discomfort and as a topical dressing for wounds. Modern day herbalists also use baneberry as a strong antispasmotic, hopefully with extreme care.
Baneberry fruits are very bitter. Grazing livestock rarely consume the foliage and are thus not often poisoned. Interestingly baneberry is harmless to birds, who are the primary dispensers of baneberry seeds.
Preferring open woodlands, and shady areas with moist to wet soils, baneberry can be found throughout the western and northern United States. This deciduous perennial is rhizomatous with one or several erect, sparsely branched stems. The leaves are few, large and 2 or 3 times divided into threes. The individual segments are lobed and coarsely toothed with hairy veins on the underside. The red or white berries (red is the most common) are smooth and contain several seeds. Each berry has a black dot on the side.
These baneberry plants were growing along the North Umpqua Trail (Oregon) on the Jesse Wright Segment. The berries look pretty and edible – but beware!!