Baneberry is the common name used to refer to different species of flowering plants in the genus Actaea of the buttercup family, Ranunculaceae. Native to temperate regions, most of these plants originate from the subtropical and subarctic regions of North America, Europe, as well as Asia. Other names for baneberry include bugbane and cohosh.
Known for its fancy flowers that turn into toxic but even fancier and showy berries, baneberry plants are famous amongst gardeners looking for ways to add a touch of uniqueness to their precious green spaces. The plant features delicate, feathery flowers that eventually mature into small round fruits of white, red, yellow, purple, or even black color. [Source: Wimastergardener]
Besides putting up a fascinating display of this natural phenomenon, baneberry is also valued for bringing life to shade gardens and maintaining attractive foliage at the time when most of the other greens are withering away. Although the species serves as an impressive decorative plant in any garden, there are major concerns regarding its toxicity.
From the roots to the leaves, the entire baneberry plant is toxic. Its berries are poisonous and if consumed in large quantities, they can have a sedative effect. In extreme cases, they may even cause cardiac arrest.
However, despite the health concerns for humans, it is not uncommon to spot baneberry plants gracing the front and backyards of various houses in different parts of America.
Take a look at the different types of baneberry flowers and lots of other useful information about these ‘lethally attractive’ plants that you ought to know.
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Types of Baneberry
Also known as Doll’s Eyes or white cohosh, white baneberry is the common name given to the Actaea species, Actaea pachypoda, or Actaea alba. Originating from eastern Canada and the Midwestern and Eastern parts of the United States, this herbaceous plant is a common sight in woodlands and similar natural areas.
Growing an average of 2 to 3 feet tall, the white baneberry is a perennial plant which means that it generally lives for at least two years. White baneberry is the most widely known type of baneberry, featuring dense clusters of small white flowers that eventually transform into small and shiny white balls. These white balls consist of a prominent black spot on the opposite end of where the fruit is joined to the stalk. This explains how the species got the strange alternative name ‘Doll’s Eyes’ — because the shiny black dot that is a stark contrast against the snow-white fruit skin bear close resemblance to the artificial porcelain eyes often used for china dolls.
What makes white baneberry a fine choice for gardens is the fact that these perfectly round white balls perched atop bright red stalks look truly majestic. Highlighted against the backdrop of lively green foliage, this provides a distinct pop of color in the shaded areas of your backyard.
White baneberry plants have toothed greens that grow together as compound leaves. Each leaflet measures up to 5 inches long and 2 inches wide and is found in groups of three. The showiness of the plant doesn’t end at its fluffy flowers and bright green foliage. Featuring dark purple spots at the nodes, its stems are also quite distinct. This variety blooms heavily during the midsummer months.
Red baneberry, whose scientific name is Actaea rubra, is an herbaceous perennial that is native to Canada and various parts of North America. The bushy plants comprise of large green segmented leaves that extend outwards from a thick stem of a similar shade. These woodland plants usually grow up to an average of 1 to 3 feet tall and flower excessively during the early summer.
When bloom time arrives, the plants produce fancy white flowers containing three to five sepals surrounding delicate white petals. In the middle of the bowl-shaped flower, there are numerous stamens of a similar shade that make the blossom look even more intricate.
Red and white baneberry flowers are highly similar. In fact, it can be difficult to set the two species apart unless it’s the end of the flowering season where they both bear fruits of different colors.
By the end of June, the blooms of Actaea rubra slowly transform into small green ellipsoid berries. These berries contain countless seeds and adopt a bright red color during late summer. Just like the white baneberry, the red variety also features a black dot on the fruits but it is not very prominent.
These red berries are a native plant in Alaska where you can easily find them growing alongside Bristol Bay as well as the Yukon River. Red baneberry is perhaps the most common type of baneberry flowers used in the home garden because its fruit, despite being poisonous, does not cause any harm to birds (note that it’s not edible though). It is often grown in shade gardens as the heavy clumps of intense red berries standing upright on plain green stems provide a fascinating sight.
This species of baneberry flowers have long been used for medicinal purposes. Native Americans used the extract of these berries for poisoning the tips of their arrows before hunting whereas the roots of Actaea rubra are still used as a herbal remedy to treat problems like muscle aches, cramps, and skin inflammation.
Actaea erythrocarpa, commonly known as European Baneberry is another species that bears red berries.
Reaching heights of up to 1 to 2 feet, these small plants are a dwarf variety that produces exquisite bunches of white or reddish-white flowers each measuring about half an inch in diameter. These blooms appear as inflorescence or dense raceme (clusters) sitting atop long-stalked, compound leaves of triangular shape. While the fragile flowers put up an impressive floral display, their transformation into berries is an equally incredible sight. The white flowers turn into tiny egg-shaped berries that are green when young and the slowly darken into red-skinned fruit.
Like all other baneberry varieties, these poisonous plants are dangerous for both, humans and animals. However, birds love pecking at these red berries and surprisingly, do not seem to suffer any harm. In fact, birds are the primary seed dispersers for many different types of baneberry flowers.
Other names for this species include Chinaberry and Christopher Berry, named after Saint Christopher in central Europe where it was a commonly held belief that Actaea erythrocarpa was able to ward off the plague.
Like many other species in the Actaea group, Arizona bugbane was earlier categorized in the genus cimicifuga, but later studies found that it is actually a type of baneberry.
Arizona bugbane is the common name given to the species Actaea arizonica in the buttercup family. This herbaceous perennial is unique to the native state that it has been named after.
Found only in Arizona, the Arizona bugbane features a smooth stem that grows upright up to 2 meters tall. The compound leaves are triple-lobed and sharply toothed near the edges. During late spring or early summer, the shrubs produce racemes on multiple long branches. The flowers predominantly consist of cream and greenish white sepals. Distinct white petals may sometimes be produced but these are usually absent. The plants bloom abundantly during July and August and will often attract a swarm of bumblebees and similar insects to aid in pollination.
This variety prefers full shade and soils that are rich in organic matter. This is one of the primary reasons why the Arizona bugbane is a common wildflower species in mixed forests, riparian zones, sprigs, and even canyons.
Native to North America, actaea racemosa goes by the common names black cohosh, black bugbane, fairy candle or black snakeroot.
This group of flowering plants comes under the sub-division of Eudicots which means that black bugbane is related to other plant varieties that produce delicate and feathery blooms such as Queen Anne’s lace, astilbe, spirea, and the likes.
Black bugbane is an attractive perennial plant that produces long and elegant inflorescences in early spring. As the name suggests, this baneberry variety features dark black colored fruits that are a sharp contrast against the light green foliage. Extracts of black bugbane are sometimes used for manufacturing herbal medicines and dietary supplements.
Scientifically identified as Actaea spicata, this species in the Ranunculaceae family is usually called toadroot, Herb Christopher, common baneberry or just baneberry for short.
The common baneberry plants comprise of a shiny woody stem that is stylishly curved away from the nodes. The plant bears bright green triangular-shaped leaves of varying sizes that grow together in closely packed clusters. During the flowering months of May and June, these shrub-like plants are heavily laden with dense inflorescences of frail white flowers. Although Actaea spicata produces fragrant flowers, the scent of these blooms has remained debatable for a long time. Some people say it faintly smells like a grapefruit whereas others find the scent completely disgusting.
Whatever the case might be, bees and insects find the smell alluring and are, therefore, attracted to the flowers. This enables the plant to self-pollinate. The unfertilized flowers eventually mature into poisonous berries.
The natural habitat of these baneberry plants includes broad-leaved forests, stream banks, cliff sides as well as shady ridges that receive only partial sunlight.
Actaea simplex is the most common type of baneberry that can be spotted in several home gardens all across Canada and North America. The plant is generally known by its scientific name and if you ever ask for simple baneberry flowers at your local nursery or garden store, it is highly likely that you will be given the Actaea simplex variety.
Originating from Sakhalin and Siberian regions of Russia, western China, Mongolia, and Japan, this wildflower plant reaches an average height of almost 4 feet and spread about 3 feet wide in diameter. It features trifoliate foliage, which means compound leaves having three small leaflets each. By the end of autumn, the plant produces sleek and slender stems that rise straight in the air. Standing with poise and grace, these smooth stems look really elegant when bloom time arrives and petite white flowers start appearing all over the stalks.
These neat and stylish baneberry flowers are an ideal garden plant for providing late autumn color in shade gardens. Besides serving as an ornamental variety, they will also uplift the aura of your backyard with their fragrant flowers that spread an invigorating scent all across the place. Some hybrids are also available and have won the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit. For example, the Brunette is prized for its compact flowers whereas the Hillside Black Beauty is known for pale pink blooms that are unlike any other type of baneberry flowers.
In the UK and adjacent regions, this type of baneberry flowers is sold under the former name, Cimicifuga simplex.
The Misty Blue baneberry is a hybrid variety produced from the white baneberry or to be more accurate, actaea pachypoda species. This cultivar provides a long season of interest for both skilled and novice gardeners as it is easy to grow and care for. Inspired by bluish-green plants of unknown origin growing in Mt. Cuba Center, this species was specifically engineered to produce attractive green foliage with a not-so-subtle tint of blue hues. The plant can flourish in most soil types as long as they are moist and rich in organic matter. It prefers partial shade and looks spectacular in shade gardens with its distinct leaves of green and blue tones.
The leaves maintain color all year round but the plant blooms best in early spring when white racemes start appearing. With their conical shape and feathery texture, these showy flowers look like a bottlebrush from afar. The blossom matures into toxic white berries as summer draws near.
Although the intensity varies from one species to another, all the baneberry varieties are poisonous plants. Be it their roots, leaves, stem or the fruit itself, the entire plant contains toxic chemicals that can harm the animals and humans if they were to ingest them. The berries are the most poisonous part of the shrub which is why these plants are called ‘bane’ berry. A significant number of deaths have been reported where children, as well as adults, suffered cardiac arrest after eating red or white baneberries. Baneberries are also dangerous for rabbits, deer, and cattle that might feed off these plants in wild areas.
However, baneberries are not all that bad. They offer a range of benefits as well. Baneberries are harmless to birds and are in fact, a primary food source for birds in various forest and woodlands. Moreover, baneberry occupies a prominent place in homeopathy – a medical practice that uses chemical compounds obtained from plants to treat different ailments naturally.
Flavonoids extracted from baneberry have long been used to cure rheumatism, arthritis and joint pain as well as to relieve abdominal discomfort, treat chronic cough and prevent asthma. This is because the roots of this plant contain aconitic acid which works as an anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic agent.
The roots of baneberry have great medical importance. They are often used to prepare mixtures for treating itchy skin, reduce headaches, as well as combat sore throat by gargling. The leaves of the plants are used to make bandages that can be applied to minor wounds for faster healing and skin recovery.
Baneberry flowers are, without a doubt, very beautiful; however, if you plan on planting them in your own home garden, you must be very careful and always keep a vigilant eye—especially if you have young kids or pets— because the beauty of baneberry is the beauty that can kill— quite literally.
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