A baneberry is a perfect, beautiful, little berry but it is also deadly poisonous. “Bane” is defined as a thing that harms, interferes with, or destroys the welfare of something, and bane can also mean poison. It takes only six baneberries to kill an adult human.
Baneberries grow in moist, shady areas, and on dry slopes. On Kodiak, they are mostly found in the woods, often growing near salmonberry bushes. Baneberry plants grow 2 to 3 ½ ft. high and have large, lobed, coarsely toothed leaves. In the early summer, small, white flowers bloom on the plant, and then later in the summer, the plants produce round, red or white berries. Each berry is attached to a separate, short, thick stalk. The berries are either round or oblong and are very glossy. The plants are beautiful and are sometimes used for landscaping.
All parts of the baneberry plant are poisonous. According to old folklore, it is safe to eat any berry birds can eat, but baneberries prove this saying false. Birds can safely consume baneberries while we cannot. Luckily, baneberries taste extremely bitter, so if you do pop one in your mouth, you will probably spit it out in seconds, and you would be very unlikely to eat enough berries to do you serious harm. We once had a guest eat a baneberry, and several minutes later, he asked what the shiny, red berries were and said they tasted terrible. We kept a close eye on him, but he suffered no ill effects from his baneberry experience.
The first symptoms of baneberry toxicity include blistering and burning of the mouth and throat. These are followed by dizziness, sharp stomach pains, diarrhea, vomiting, and death by cardiac arrest or respiratory paralysis. The toxicity of the baneberry is caused by the chemical ranunculin. Ranunculin releases protoanemonin whenever the plant is damaged, such as by chewing. Protoanemonin is a skin irritant and causes blistering of the skin. If the berry is ingested, it has a similar effect on the mucous membranes of the esophagus, stomach, and intestines as it did on the skin. Eventually, it affects the respiratory system and the heart.
Native Americans used the baneberry as a medicinal but were well aware of its toxic properties. Various tribes used the baneberry root to treat menstrual cramps, postpartum pain, and menopausal symptoms. Cheyenne Indians used an infusion of baneberry leaves to increase a mother’s milk supply, and they used the berry itself to induce vomiting. Some tribes applied the juice of the baneberry to the tips of their arrows to make their arrowheads even more deadly.
I could find no reports of baneberries being used to murder someone, either in the real world or in literature. They would make a great murder weapon in one of my novels, but they would have to be sweetened and perhaps added to other berries to convince one of my characters to eat them.
Next week, I’ll investigate the properties of beautiful monkshood.
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