A perennial grown mainly for its decorative berries? That’s very unusual. Most perennials are ground for their flowers or their leaves. However, the main attraction of the the white baneberry (Actaea pachypoda) are definitely its fruits.
It’s not that its blooms are unattractive: the tiny white stars are densely borne on a terminal cluster are certainly nice enough to look at and deliciously perfumed as well. And its dark green foliage is beautifully cut, about halfway between that of a maple and that of a fern (many gardeners find it looks like that of an astilbe). So the plant is more than presentable in spring… but that’s nothing compared to its fall show!
All eyes are on the white baneberry when its berries begin to ripen at the end of the summer and in early fall. Just before they mature, the stalks that bear the still green berries swell up and turn bright red. Then the berries change color, turning a creamy white with a contrasting black dot at the far end, a feature that has earned it the common name of doll’s eyes. The effect is both original and charming.
Beware, however, that the attractive berries are poisonous. That’s where the name “baneberry” comes from (“bane” formerly meant poisonous). If you grow this plant, teach your children never to eat the berries. Birds however eat the berries with impunity, usually just after the fruits have undergone freezing temperatures. They carry the seeds to new spots, thus helping the plant spread in the wild.
White baneberry will start to bloom at only 1 foot (30 cm) in height, but tends to grow taller over the years, eventually reaching 2 feet (60 cm) or even 3 feet (90 cm) in height. The plant will reach about 1 to 2 feet (30 to 60 cm) in diameter.
And the plant is also very hardy: USDA zones 2 to 7, AgCan zones 3 to 8, making the plant a good choice for the northern gardener.
An Eastern North American Native
In the wild, white baneberry is found throughout much of Eastern North America, from Florida to Quebec and Ontario where it grows in mixed and deciduous forests.
When not it bloom, it is easy to confuse this plant with its red-berried cousin, red baneberry (Actaea rubra), as they have similar flowers and leaves, but the latter’s red berries, produced earlier in the season, from about mid-summer until September, are a dead giveaway.
However, there is a white-berried version of the red baneberry, A. rubra neglecta, which is actually more common than the red one in many areas. It can be told from the white baneberry by its stalks, which remain thin and green and never swell up or change color.
Easy to Grow
White baneberry is a woodland plant. While it can tolerate full sun, but will grow better in part to full shade. It is especially at home at the base of deciduous trees and, in home gardens, does best in a similar location: a shady corner where it can grow without interference.
It prefers soils rich in organic matter and is perfectly comfortable with forest litter, that layer of decaying leaves that covers the ground in deciduous forests. In your garden, it will appreciate a thick layer of chopped leaves as mulch.
This plant will be of great interest to gardeners struggling with dry shade, as it naturally grows among dense tree roots in the wild and will positively thrive even under shallow, dense rooted trees like maples.
White baneberry tolerates both occasional flooding (it makes a good choice for rain gardens) and occasional drought. If the summer is very dry, however, the foliage may dry up prematurely. If so, don’t worry: the plant has just gone summer dormant and will be back the following spring.
This plant is slow growing and slow to spread: it may be necessary to plant several specimens together if you want to get a dense effect fairly quickly. If you are very patient, however, the plant will self sow, at least if its grown in a wooded area, but you’ll be years from seeing from a dense patch form. Though it may self-sow, one could hardly call it invasive… and any unwanted seedlings are easily removed and transplanted elsewhere.
Expect a happy white baneberry to live for 20, 40, 60 years or more and no division is required for it to accomplish that feat. However, you can multiply it by division if you want more plants, preferably in the fall or early spring.
The other means of multiplication is to sow the seeds yourself. Normally you would sow the seeds outdoors in the fall, where you want them to grow, but be aware that they usually require two winters of cold stratification before they will sprout. So, if you sow them in the fall, don’t expect to see baby plants before the second spring!
To speed things up, you can sow the seeds indoors, giving them two successive cold treatments in the same year. Do this in the fall, cleaning the seeds of their fleshy berry, then press them gently into a pot of moist soil without covering them completely. Now seal the pot in a plastic bag to ensure constant humidity and place the pot in the refrigerator for two months. After this first cold treatment, move the pot to a spot with normal indoor temperatures (about 70-75?C/20-24?C) for about two months, then put the pot back in the fridge for another 2 months. When you expose the seeds to warmth the second time, you should get good germination in two or three weeks. Gardens North offers seeds by mail.
White baneberry is not usually subject to insets or diseases and even slugs and deer don’t seem to like it. About the only problem you may encounter is the yellowing or burning of its leaves if you grow the plant in a dry, sunny y environment.
A. pachypoda ‘Misty Blue’ is a cultivar with blue green foliage, but otherwise identical to the species. It is relatively easy to find in garden.
A. pachypoda rubrocarpa is occasionally found in the wild. It’s a form with rose to red berries on borne on a red purplish stalk. It is occasionally available in nurseries, although I personally find it less attractive then normal variety with white berries.
There you go! A pretty native forest plant that can that illuminate your garden in fall. Try it and see!