All parts of the White Baneberry plant (as well as Red Baneberry) are highly toxic. The fruit, called “doll’s eyes” for obvious reasons, is the most poisonous part, known to cause respiratory paralysis and cardiac arrest in humans. It does not have this effect on all mammals, however. White-tailed deer are known to browse on baneberry, and small rodents such as mice, squirrels and voles feed on the fruit. Geometrid moth larvae (“inchworms”) burrow into the fruits and their seeds while they (the fruits) are still green. A wide variety of birds, including American Robins and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, eat the fruit, helping disperse the plants when they excrete the brown, wedge-shaped seeds (insert). Ruffed Grouse also eat the fruits, but the seeds are destroyed in the digestive process. Oddly enough, Native Americans used the juice of Red Baneberry to gargle with as well as to poison their arrows.
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White baneberry (Actaea alba) is most conspicuous in late summer, when its white berries tipped with a black dot are evident. It is not hard to see why it is also called Doll’s Eyes – the berries are said to resemble the ceramic eyes of old-fashioned china dolls. The entire plant is poisonous – just a few berries can cause dizziness and nausea in humans. However, they are eaten by ruffed grouse, yellow-bellied sapsuckers and American robins. White-footed mice and southern red-backed voles also dine on them. The leaves and flowers of its relative, red baneberry (Actaea rubra), closely resemble white baneberry, but in the fall it’s easy to tell them apart by the color of their berries (see 7/10/11 blog post) , as reflected in their common names.