While the flowers of Red (Actaea rubra) and White Baneberry (Actaea pachypoda) are quite similar (the flower head of Red Baneberry is more globular than the elongated head of White Baneberry), their respective fruits, the color of which gave them their common names, quickly distinguish these two species from each other.
White Baneberry produces white fruits commonly called “Doll’s eyes” due to the persistent remains of the flower’s stigma, which leaves a black dot on each fruit. Red Baneberry’s shiny red berries also have these black dots, though they are not as apparent. All parts of both species are poisonous, with the berries being the most toxic part of the plant.
Seed dispersal is carried out by animals that have enough tolerance to feed on the berries. These animals include various mice, squirrels, chipmunks and voles, as well as a wide variety of birds and White-tailed Deer.
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Bunchberry, Cornus canadensis, is among the smallest of a genus of mostly shrubs and trees, and the only dogwood species that is herbaceous. The white flowers (resembling one flower, but actually consisting of many flowers , each 2 mm in diameter, surrounded by four modified leaves, called bracts) develop into red fruits which some people and a few birds, including ruffed grouse, veeries and vireos, find tasty. Bunchberry prefers cool, acidic soil — look for it where you find partridgeberry, goldthread and twinflower. If you find it, look closely, as Nashville warblers sometimes nest beneath it.
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Animals that remain active in New England throughout the year often make preparations for the colder months, when food is much scarcer. Eastern Chipmunks store up to half a bushel of nuts and seeds in their underground tunnels, Red Squirrels hang mushrooms and apples out to dry and White-footed and Deer Mice create larders, often out of abandoned bird nests. Once their young have fledged, most songbirds never re-use their nest. Mice find these empty cup-shaped containers perfect for storing seeds that they collect in the fall. The mouse that took over this Northern Cardinal nest (located in a rose bush) didn’t have to go far to collect a sizeable number of rose hips. One hopes that this isn’t this particular mouse’s only cached food, as most of the seeds (within the fleshy red covering) have been devoured. (Thanks to Marian Marrin for photo op.)
At this time of year it’s not unusual to find the scat of various mammals consisting mostly of apple. Red Foxes, White-tailed Deer, Cottontail Rabbits, Porcupines and Black Bears, in particular, are all avid consumers of this appetizing fruit. Birds, including Purple Finches, Cedar Waxwings and Northern Mockingbirds, also include apples in their diets . While many insects drink the juice of apples, it’s not that often you see an insect like this Woolly Bear caterpillar (the larval stage of the Isabella Tiger Moth) consuming a sizable chunk of a McIntosh apple and leaving behind tell-tale scat. (Discovery by Sadie Richards)
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.
In many areas the forest floor is now carpeted with flowering Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens), the creeping, woody vine found in both deciduous and coniferous woods. The pairs of white flowers occur in two forms. In the first form (pictured) the pistil is short and the stamens are long; in the second form the pistil is long and the stamens are short. This structure prevents each flower from fertilizing itself. Both flowers must be pollinated to obtain a single scarlet berry. Each berry is the result of the fusion of each ovary of the pollinated pair of white flowers. As such, each berry has two bright red spots on its surface.