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Actaea rubra, commonly known as red baneberry, is a deciduous perennial herb native to transcontinental Canada and the United States, except for Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, and the southeastern states (USDA 2016). It belongs to the dicotyledonae class and the Ranunculaceae (Buttercup) family and typically inhabits deciduous and mixed coniferous forests, open slopes, stream banks, and swamps, with maximum growth potential reached in moist environments situated in partly shaded areas. Optimal soil is acidic and rich in humus with a pH value of less than 6.8 (Flora of North America 2016; NPIN 2012). Baneberry earns its name, from the Anglo-Saxon bana, meaning “murderous,” by being quite poisonous to humans (Pojar and MacKinnon 2004).
Red baneberry’s herbaceous structure consists of one to several branched stems typically reaching 1-3 feet in height growing from thick rhizomes (rootstock). It is characterized by sparsely distributed short hairs and coarsely toothed, alternately positioned, compound leaves. Its leaflets grow in pairs or in threes on each stem. Each plant typically produces flower clusters consisting of 5-10 white petals (2-3.5mm long) and 3-5 sepals that remain after the petals fall. Each flower contains a thin pistil and long white stamens that produce berries that are usually bright red, but are sometimes white and occasionally pink. In some locations, plants with white fruit are more common than those with red (Flora of North America 2016). The berries contain several seeds that are 5-10mm in diameter. Actaea rubra’s perennial life cycle typically displays blooming flowers in May, June, or July and production of ripe (poisonous) berries from July to October (NPIN 2012).
All parts of Actaea rubra (roots, stem, and especially berries) contain an oil that is very poisonous to humankind, but the fruit is nevertheless nutritious to many birds and small mammals, although some small mammals eat the seeds and leave the pulp, and deer and elk feed on the foliage. Some Native American groups of the Pacific Northwest employed baneberry preparations for various medical treatments, including chewing the leaves and spitting on wounds and boils to stimulate circulation and healing (Crane 1990).