Saturday, August 22, 2009

White Baneberry: The Eyes Have It

Have you ever walked through the woods and thought something was watching you? You turn around, scanning the forest for eyes, and there they are! Short red stalks at the top of a green stem, each tipped with a white eyeball dotted with a small black pupil! Is it an alien from outer space? No, but you have discovered the fruit of White Baneberry (Actaea pachypoda), also known as Doll’s Eyes (and White Cohosh). A member of the buttercup family, white baneberry is closely related to the genus Aconite, which includes wolfsbane and monkshood among its species.

These are very toxic plants, and likewise so is white baneberry. In fact, if you think about it, the very name baneberry indicates that you should not eat it: bane = murderer, poison, death, woe, a source of harm or ruin. Kind of makes you think twice, eh? The whole plant is toxic (although the berries are considered the most poisonous), laced with cardiogenic toxins that are described as having a sedative effect on the heart muscles. If one decides to snack on it, one can expect to suffer cardiac arrest and death.

Birds, on the other hand, can eat this fruit with impunity, and a good thing, too, for they are the primary distributors of its seeds. And thanks to their efforts, this plant is fairly common throughout the eastern United States. You can find it growing in areas with moist, rich soil, favoring north-facing slopes and ravines. Earlier in the season it sports puffy white flowers that are fragrant and attractive, but come early fall, the plant disappears from sight and goes dormant until the following spring.

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Ellen Rathbone is by her own admission a "certified nature nut." She began contributing to the Adirondack Almanack while living in Newcomb, when she was an environmental educator for the Adirondack Park Agency's Visitor Interpretive Centers for nearly ten years.

Ellen graduated from SUNY ESF in 1988 with a BS in forestry and biology and has worked as a naturalist in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont.

In 2010 her work took her to Michigan, where she currently resides and serves as Education Director of the Dahlem Conservancy just outside Jackson, Michigan.

She also writes her own blog about her Michigan adventures.





2 Responses

  1. Ellen Rathbone says: