For much of the year this unassuming woodland perennial, also known as Actaea rubra, could easily be overlooked. Its soft-green foliage and short rounded clusters of white flowers are far subtler than its showier cousin, Actaea simplex with its much larger, heavily-scented foxtail like flowers.
That is until mid-summer, when it erupts with multiple trusses of glistening, crimson red berries. When its jewel-like berries are combined with its light and airy Astilbe-like foliage, this plant suddenly makes sense. Very different to anything else you will see this time of year, it will stop you in your tracks – once spotted never forgotten.
These succulent red berries look so good, it might be tempting to try one. This would, however, be very unwise. Also known as red baneberry, black cohosh and snakeberry, all parts of this plant, if eaten in large quantities, can be highly toxic to humans, most especially the berries and fleshy roots. Symptoms include burning of mouth and throat, salivation, severe stomach cramps, headache, diarrhoea, dizziness and hallucinations.
There are only a small number of these fatally beautiful plants here at Harlow Carr, for obvious reasons, and great care has to be taken to plant them in less prominent locations, deep in the woodland glade and tucked beneath rhododendrons along Streamside.
How to grow baneberries
Despite their toxicity they are well worth planting. Actaea rubra looks great planted in groups, as a groundcover and it works well with native woodland plants. Its foliage emerges relatively late in the year towards the end of April, so it works well inter-planted with spring flowering bulbs.
Native to North America and Canada this medium-sized plant can be found in deciduous forests, mixed coniferous forests, stream banks and swamps. It can reach 60cm in height and 40cm across. Actaea rubra prefers slightly acidic, moist, fertile, humus-rich soil. It should be mulched well with leaf mould and watered regularly in periods of dry weather. A truly fatally attractive plant.
See also - discover The Poisonous Garden at RHS Flower Show Tatton Park