Bane of the Woods

Bane:  from the Old English word bana meaning a thing causing death or poison; today, a cause of great distress or annoyance.

Over the centuries we’ve learned which plants were safe to eat, which ones can cure certain ills and which could make us sick or kill us (or our enemies). So we have fleabane. Dogbane. Henbane. Cowbane. Witchbane. Wolf’s bane and more. (The latter is handy should you encounter vampires or werewolves.) The list goes on.

Baneberries look so festive they seem to invite the unsuspecting to taste at least one berry. But best keep your hand in your pocket. They are poisonous (as are their white counterparts, often called doll’s eyes).

One plant grows under the lilac tree in our yard. It’s never spread from there so I leave it to grow undisturbed. I’ve also occasionally run into single plants in our woods. A recent trip on Snake Hill, however, surprised me — I found six or seven healthy plants growing in among the cow parsnip and grasses.

Baneberry berries and leaves

All parts of the plant can cause you grief but the roots and the berries particularly so. While the effect varies from person to person depending on age, health, weight and such, baneberry will quickly make itself known — burning mouth and throat, severe stomach cramps, diarrhea, dizziness et cetera. Not pleasant.

That said, you’ll notice that something small has been nibbling these berries — but that’s no indicator that they’re safe. Poisons often affect different species in different ways.


Baneberries belong to the buttercup family along with clematis, larkspur — all of which can make you sick.

Red baneberry   Actaea rubra

Doll’s Eyes

Poison lives under the lilac bush in my garden. Just one plant. In the shade, almost out of sight.

Although it has grown there for years it’s never spread further into my world so it’s easy to miss — until the berries ripen.

My baneberry produces glossy red berries though some plants produce white ones. Each berry ends in a noticeable black dot. Looking at white berries it’s easy to see where the nickname doll’s eyes originated.

Baneberry belongs to the buttercup family, along with tall larkspur, columbine and white watercrowfoot. And like several members of that family it’s extremely poisonous, especially the roots and berries.

That said, apparently it’s not so bad for some animals. The berries disappear off my solitary plant each year so something is eating them. Hopefully whoever dined on them didn’t die ruing their menu choice.


Red baneberry   Actaea rubra