Poison Plant: The Bane(berry) of Your Existence

2014-06-09_13-54-37_691We were in the forest one recent afternoon, myself and the lovely ginger-haired Jess Wright, a holistically minded nurse from southern California who had hired me for a private hike.

We walk for two hours and cover dozens of plants, happily, and then we unexpectedly come across this mystery specimen I had never before encountered.

“Look at those berries,” Jess said, leaning in close to this meter-tall bush. “What are they called?”

“I have no idea,” I said, “but I get a strong poison vibe. The sharply toothed leaves and those shiny berries feel menacing to me, as if they are saying, ‘I will kill you.” Jess concurred.

I reached in my bag and pulled out my favorite field guide, Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast. I flipped through the pages until I found a plant that looked just like the one we were looking at and matched its characteristics of coarsely toothed and lobed leaves 2 to 3 times divided in 3s, growing about 1 meter tall, and living in moist, shady forests at low to mid elevation in this region.

“Ah, the book says it’s Actea rubra,” I said. “It says ‘the common name Baneberry refers to the plant’s severely poisonous nature and comes from the Anglo-Saxon word bana, meaning murderous.” Ingesting just six berries can cause respiratory paralysis. Poison indeed! Score one for the intuition.

As we walked on, Jess playfully re-named the plant “Don’t Eat Me,” an accurate suggestion!

Yet, despite its lethal potential, baneberry, like almost all plants, is useful medicinally. I later dove into the ethnobotanical literature and learned that while the berries themselves are avoided as poisonous, the Cheyenne, Chippewa, Cree, Blackfoot, and Quinault people use a decoction of the plant’s roots as a cold and cough remedy, for staunching excessive menstrual bleeding, to promote milk flow after childbirth, and for rheumatism. The leaves have also been applied topically to heal boils.

By the way, pictured above are the unripe berries. When ripe, they turn red in color. Less commonly, they may be white, or confused with the other lethal Bane, the villain seen in the latest Batman movie. Both can kill, but the difference is that the Hollywood version is played by Tom Hardy.
Here Jess poses with Pathfinder, aka Trail Plant, Adenocaulon bicolor, a plant I'll be covering on this blog very soon!

Here Jess poses with Pathfinder, aka Trail Plant, Adenocaulon bicolor, a plant I’ll be covering on this blog very soon!

To learn more plants, visits the Plant Gallery page, order a plant walk DVD, or go on a private hike with me!

Upcoming Classes:
Igniting Your Psychic Connection with Elderberry & Passionflower
A plant spirit voyage of discovery through guided meditation and experimentation this Thursday, June 12, 6:30 to 8:30 pm at New Renaissance Bookshop, NW 23rd Ave & Pettygrove, Portland, OR $20 at the door

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