Baneberries are erect native perennial woodland plants, 1 to 2 1/2 feet high.
The leaves of A. rubra are oblong coarsely toothed, alternate, 2 to 3 times 3-parted leaflets, similar to the White Baneberry except some leaves may have some hair on the underside. The leaves all grow from the upper part of the stems leaving the lower stems bare and exposed under the leaves.
The inflorescence is a rounded cluster of small white flowers, on a long stalk, somewhat pyramidal in shape, but about as long as wide (but this is not diagnostic); one cluster per stem.
Flowers are bisexual. The cream colored flower petals number 4 to 10, are ovate with an acute to obtuse tip and very tapered to clawed base. These fall off early leaving the stamens pointing outward in multiple directions. Stamens can number 15 to 50, and have white long filaments and cream anthers. There is one pistil with the style either very short or absent. The sepals of calyx are whitish-green in color, and are not persistent on the fruit.
Fruit: The lustrous berries may occasionally be white as shown here, but on this species, be they red or white, are each on a very slender greenish stalk which is dull green to brown at maturity, The fleshy berries are oval in shape and contain 8 or more hard seeds that are cone shaped to wedge shaped, dark brown to reddish brown in color. On this white berry type of the Red Baneberry the lustrous white berries have a purple "eye" which is easily noticed. Seeds are difficult to start as they must have a cold moist period followed by a warm moist period and another cold moist period, which means if sowed outside, they will not germinate until the 2nd year.
HAZARD: Baneberry plants are poisonous and the berries are considered especially poisonous. More notes at page bottom.
Habitat: As it is a woodland plant Red Baneberry is found in shady spots of open woods and forests where there is wet to mesic moisture conditions. The root is a woody caudex with fibrous roots. Stems die back to ground level in the fall. In the Woodland Garden it will be found along shady paths.
Names: The genus name Actaea is the Latin name that was used by Pliny and adopted by Linnaeus in 1753. The Latin is thought to come from old Greek, either aktea or akte, for 'elder' which probably refers to a similarity of leaf type with that plant. The species, rubra, is Latin for "red". The common name of baneberry was applied in reference to the poisonous fruit. This white berry form has sometimes been referred to as Actaea rubra form neglecta.
The plant author names accepted today are two-fold: Modifying the work of Linnaeus and using the name Actaea spicata in 1789 was ‘Aiton’ which refers to William Aiton (1731-1793), Scottish botanist, who succeeded Philip Miller as superintendent of the Chelsea Physic Garden and then became director of Kew Gardens, where he published Hortus Kewensis, the Garden’s catalogue of plants. His work was revised in 1809 to the current name by ‘Willd.’ who is Carl Ludwig Willdenow (1765-1812), German botanist, a founder of the study of the geographic distribution of plants. He was director and curator of the Botanic Garden of Berlin.
Comparisons: In the true White Baneberry species (Actaea pachypoda), individual berries are each on a stouter, red, fleshier stalk, compared to the Red Baneberry where the stalks are much thinner and greenish; the flower petal tips are truncate or cleft; the raceme of A. pachypoda is more elongated but that is not absolutely definitive. Some research has indicated that the white berry form of the Red Baneberry may be due to one particular plant gene. The Garden staff has noted however, that the white berry form plants in the Garden have hybrid characteristics of both Actaea pachypoda and rubra.
Above: 1st photo - The fruit of the white form of Red Baneberry. Note the berry stalks are green and thin. 2nd photo - The inflorescence is usually a more rounded cluster than those of the White Baneberry.
Below: The 2 to 3 times, 3-parted leaflets are held high on stiff stems. The long flower stalks arise from the leaf stem.
Below: The wedge shaped baneberry seeds, typical in number obtained from one berry.
Below: 1st photo - Fruit and leaves - late July. Berry comparison: The main difference in appearance between the white berry form of A. rubra and the White Baneberry, A. pachypoda, is in the color and fleshiness of the berry stalks. A rubra's are thin and greenish, whereas in A. pachypoda (2nd photo) they are stout and red.
Notes: Both the Red and White Baneberry are indigenous to the Garden area. Eloise Butler catalogued the red on May 25, 1907 and the white on Oct. 9, 1909; in addition in 1910 she planted some plants of A. rubra that she obtained in Cokato, MN. The species was listed on Martha Crone's 1951 inventory of plants in the Garden at that time and she tried planting seeds in 1953. Both species are native to Minnesota but with much different distribution. A. rubra occurs in most counties throughout the state except a few in the SW quadrant. A. pachypoda is restricted to just 11 counties, all on the east edge of the state, but running from the Arrowhead down to the SE Corner. These are the only two species of Actaea found in North America. A. rubra is found in most of the Canadian Provinces and in the States of the northern half of the U.S.
Medicinal Lore: Tilford (Ref. #39) reports that clinical herbalists have found Red Baneberry useful as a strong antispasmodic. The root is considered a strong alternative to Black Cohosh as a herbal remedy for menstrual cramping and menopausal discomforts. Densmore (Ref. #5), in her study of the Minnesota Chippewa reports the same use but refers to the roots of those plants of the species which bear the white berries. The plants that bear red berries are said to be used for diseases of men. Care had to be taken in any case, as large quantities of baneberry consumed may cause cardiac arrest.
References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.
Identification booklet for most of the flowering forbs and small flowering shrubs of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. Details Here.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"