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Actaea spicata, bugbane

Summary

Of the many thousands of plants in the buttercup family, this is the only one that produces berries. Though they look like elderberries, there is little evidence of them being eaten in error.


Actaea spicate, bugbane

Actaea spicata, bugbane

Family

Ranunculaceae

Meaning of the Name

Actaea
From the Latin word for ‘elder’.  The name was given to the plant by Linnaeus because of the resemblance of the leaves and the berries to the elder.

Spicata
‘Spike’ from the structure of the plant

 

Common Names and Synonyms

bugbane, black baneberry, herb Christopher

How Poisonous, How Harmful?

Protoanemonin is believed to be the poison but there is little detail available for this plant. Ingestion of protoanemonin can lead to severe gastroenteritis with vomiting, diarrhoea and delirium.

Incidents

In 1903, Mrs Alice E. Bacon wrote to the Journal of the New England Botanical Club to describe her self-experimentation with the red baneberry, Actaea spicata rubra. She had several of the plants in her garden and they grew well producing large clumps of attractive fruit causing people to ask if they were edible.

Fearing that children might be tempted, Mrs Bacon decided to try them herself. She began with 'a small dose', which would seem to have been no more than one or two berries, and noticed only a slight burning in the stomach.

After two days, she repeated the experiment with 'double the dose' and, this time, the burning in the stomach was more pronounced and accompanied by a quickening of the pulse.

After a further two day interval, she again doubled the dose, apparently to six berries. This time, the burning in the stomach was intense and caused gaseous eructation plus abdominal and kidney pain. These physical symptoms were joined by a range of mental effects including visual hallucinations, dizziness and difficulty with speaking. These effects were accompanied by dryness in the throat, pain in the temples and an irregular pulse of 125 beats. The symptoms subsided after three hours but left her feeling intensely weary.

Mrs Bacon discontinued her experiments at this dose but concluded that twelve berries would, probably, be fatal.

Importantly, however, Mrs Bacon concluded that there was very little chance of a child consuming a harmful amount. She says of the first small dose;

'The question, however, of children eating the forbidden fruit was definitely settled at once, as no child, youth, sane adult, not even a hungry school-boy would ever devour it from deliberate choice; the taste is most nauseous, bitter, puckery; indeed, several even more drastic adjectives might be applied with perfect truth.'

It must be this awful taste which explains why there are no references anywhere to accidental poisoning as a result of eating the berries. 

Folklore and Facts

The name Actaea comes from the Greek ‘acte’ for elder because the leaves and the egg-shaped berries look like the elder. The awful taste, however, means that the berries are not eaten in error.

Its name, bugbane, comes from the offensive smell given off by the leaves but toads are said to be attracted by this and it is sometimes called toadroot.