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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Sunday 21st August 2011

It’s the time of year when you notice new berries forming in the garden almost every day. I’m not always sure the berries have appeared within the previous 24 hours; it’s quite possible that I just haven’t noticed them.

But, today, for the first time, I spotted the unripe berries on the Actaea spicata, baneberry. This is the second year for my two plants and I don’t know if they are usually slow to get going or I’m not giving them the help they require. Either way, the plants are only about 15cm high and only have a couple of berry clusters each.

Actaea spicata, baneberry

Actaea spicata, baneberry

The baneberry is one of the lesser poisonous plants because there are no reports of accidental poisoning but it is one of the few plants where we have some pretty reliable data on its effects and the dose dependence of those effects thanks to Mrs Alice E. Bacon whose experiments are described on the Actaea spicata page.

The reason for writing about it, today, is to do with its taxonomic classification and other species in the same genus. It is a member of the Ranunculaceae family, which is the family of the buttercups and some of the most poisonous plants from genera such as Aconitum and Helleborus. Every member of the family is poisonous to a greater or lesser extent but the Actaea spicata is unique being the only plant in the whole family that produces berries.

The modern system of plant classification dates from the work of Carl Linnaeus but the idea of dividing the world into similar items goes back to, at least, Aristotle. Linnaeus’s contribution was to simplify the structure of the naming as much as the actual determination of where each plant should fit into the structure. I freely confess that I do not know nearly enough about the history of plant classification so I’m in no position to know who first decided the baneberry’s family.

Actaea racemosa, black cohosh

Actaea racemosa, black cohosh

Since Linnaeus’s time, many plants have been reclassified as more has been learnt about them. And, yet, the baneberry remains in the Ranunculaceae though its unique berry production would make one think it couldn’t be the same as the other plants in the family. As more work is done on plant genetics and DNA studies continue, there could come a time when the Actaea spicata is found to be wrongly classified.

Mind you, there are botanists who say that DNA information is likely to produce the need for a completely different classification system because simply making changes to the Linnaean system will not be good enough.

But, if the day comes when Actaea spicata is kicked out of its family, one has to ask what will happen to the black cohosh. This plant was classified by Linnaeus as Actaea racemosa but Thomas Nuttall, who was born, in 1786, eight years after the death of Linnaeus, reclassified it as Cimicifuga racemosa. More recent work has led to the adoption of the Linnaean name though there are still those who disagree with this because of the question of berry production.

My musings over what would happen to Actaea racemosa IF Actaea spicata were to be removed from the family come from the derivation of the name ‘Actaea’. ‘Actaea’ comes from the Greek word for ‘elder’ because the leaves and the berries are thought to be similar to plants in the Sambucus genus. The Actaea racemosa does have similar leaves but, of course, does not produce any berries.

I’m not sure you could get away with saying that Actaea racemosa is named because it looks like a plant that looks like elder but the plant it looks like is no longer Actaea. Of course, DNA work may prove the familial link for Actaea spicata but that would confirm that you can’t take appearance as a guide to identity.