THE POISON GARDEN website Arum maculatum berries on a Cannabis leaf 


This free script provided by JavaScript Kit

Click for menu of plants in the A to Z section

Actaea spicata, bugbane


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



Meaning of the Name

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.

‘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.


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.


The POISON GARDEN website is not connected with Alnwick Garden Enterprises Ltd and/or The Alnwick Garden Trust.


Site Update

All the pages in the A to Z section are regularly updated.

If you've had a personal encounter with a poisonous plant please use the contact form to tell us about it.

A to Z Links

Not familiar with botanical names? Try this common name A to Z converter

Introduction to the A to Z section
Abrus precatorius, rosary pea
Aconitum lycoctonum, wolfsbane
Aconitum napellus, monkshood
Actaea racemosa, black cohosh
Actaea spicata, baneberry
Aesculus hippocastanum, horse chestnut
Amanita muscaria, fly agaric
Aquilegia atrata, columbine
Aristolochia clematitis, birthwort
Artemisia absinthium, wormwood
Arum italicum, Italian cuckoopint
Arum maculatum, cuckoopint
Aspergillus fumigatus
Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade
Brugmansia suaveolens, angel's trumpet
Bryonia dioica, bryony
Buxus sempervirens, common box
Camellia sinensis, tea
Cannabis sativa, marijuana
Catha edulis, khat
Chelidonium majus, greater celandine
Cimicifuga racemosa, black cohosh
Claviceps purpurea, ergot
Clematis vitalba, old man's beard
Colchicum autumnale, naked ladies
Conium maculatum, poison hemlock
Convallaria majalis, lily of the valley
Cynoglossum officinale, hound’s tongue
Daphne mezereon, spurge olive
Datura stramonium, thorn apple, jimsonweed
Datura suaveolens, angel's trumpet
Delphinium, larkspur
Digitalis spp., foxglove
Dracunculus vulgaris, dragon arum
Echium vulgare, viper’s bugloss
Eranthis hyemalis, winter aconite
Erythroxylum coca, cocaine
Euonymus europaeus, spindle tree
Euphorbia x martinii, red spurge
Euphorbia pulcherrima, poinsettia
Fritillaria spp., fritillary
Galanthus nivalis, snowdrop
Hedera helix, common ivy
Helleborus spp., hellebore
Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed
Hyacinthoides non-scripta, bluebell
Hyoscyamus niger, black henbane
Ilex aquifolium, holly
Jacobaea vulgaris, ragwort
Juniperus communis, common juniper
Laburnum anagyroides, laburnum
Lactuca serriola, prickly lettuce
Leucojum aestivum, snowflake
Lithospermum officinale, gromwell
Lolium temulentum, darnel
Malus 'John Downie', crab apple
Mandragora officinarum, mandrake
Mercurialis perennis, dog’s mercury
Narcissus, daffodil
Nepeta faassenii, catmint
Nerium oleander, oleander
Nicotiana sylvestris, tobacco
Oenanthe crocata, hemlock water dropwort
Papaver somniferum, opium poppy
Pastinaca sativa, parsnip
Polygonatum odoratum, angular Solomon's seal
Prunus laurocerasus, cherry laurel
Pulsatilla vulgaris, pasque flower
Ranunculus acris, meadow buttercup
Rheum x hybridum, rhubarb
Rhododendron spp.
Rhus radicans, poison ivy
Ricinus communis, castor oil plant
Rosmarinus officinalis, rosemary
Rumex obtusifolius, broad-leaved dock
Ruta graveolens, rue
Salix alba, white willow
Salvia divinorum, sage
Scutellaria laterifolia, Virginian skullcap
Senecio jacobaea, ragwort
Solanum dulcamara, woody nightshade
Solanum melongena, aubergine
Strychnos nux-vomica, poison nut
Symphoricarpos albus, snowberry
Symphytum spp., comfrey
Taxus baccata, yew
Toxicodendron radicans, poison ivy
Thevetia peruviana, yellow oleander
Urtica dioica, stinging nettle
Veratrum album, white hellebore
Verbascum olympicum, Greek mullein
Vinca major, greater periwinkle
Viscum album, mistletoe
Vitex agnus-castus, chaste tree