Red baneberry is a bush-sized herbaceous plant with clusters of delicate white flowers, and later scarlet red berries -which happen to be poisonous. Typically found in forests, woodlands and meadows. The plant grows 50-100 cm tall, with one or several stems sprouting from a thick rhizome. The leaves are green on top and paler green below. Leaves are alternate, large, divided into pinnate segments. Segments are ovate or deltoid in outline, with sharply serrated margins. Pubescence of stems and leaves variable. The inflorescence has many small perfect flowers, grown at the end of the stem, in pyramidal arrangement. Each flower has five spatulate white petals, 2-3.5 mm long, with longer white stamens. In fruit, the stigma is persistent, leaving a black dot on the tip of the berry. The berries are bright red, or occasionally pure white, opaque, 0.5-1 cm wide, each containing 9 to 16 seeds, held erect in a cluster above the plant. Poisonous baneberry could potentially be confused with edible highbush cranberry (Viburnum edule), but the leaves in that plant are opposite (not alternate), lobed (not pinnate), and the berries are less numerous and held in several clusters below the leaves, not in a terminal pyramidal spike.
Actaea rubra flowers in late May to early June, and sets fruit in June and July. In Michigan, A. rubra remains green after frost, providing forage for herbivores (Crane 1990a).
Actaea rubra flowers are bisexual and pollinated by insects. Flowers can be self-fertilized. The berries are eaten by birds, and dispersed through their movement. Seeds require a dormancy period, usually germinating after two years. Seedlings begin producing flowers at 3 years (Crane 1990a).
Though the entire plant is slightly poisonous (with the strongest concentrations of toxins in the roots and berries), in the past, dilute preparations of baneberry were widely used as a medicinal treatment by Alaska Natives. In present times, A. rubra is sometimes planted as an ornamental shrub.
Actaea rubra is broadly distributed across North America, occurring in all of Canada save the arctic, reaching New England, all of the western states and the northern Midwestern U.S. states. Baneberry's Alaskan range encompasses the interior lowlands (farthest north locality in the Ray Mountains), southwest Alaska to the Alaska Peninsula, Kodiak Island, Southcentral and the southeastern panhandle. In Denali, red baneberry is much more common in the lush areas south of the Alaska Range crest, but also occurs in occasional sites in the northern area of the park.
This species is primarily found at lower elevations. Its altitudinal range within the park is 90 to 960 m, with the majority of plants found beneath 400 m. This species is most common on south facing slopes at low inclines (average slope of 8 degrees).