The Fall Perennial with Doll’s Eyes

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White baneberry (Actaea pachypoda). Photo: Klehm Arboretum & Botanic Garden

A perennial grown mainly for its decorative berries? That’s very unusual. Most perennials are grown for their flowers or their foliage. However, the main attraction of the white baneberry (Actaea pachypoda) is definitely its fruits.

White baneberry (Actaea pachypoda) in bloom. Photo: wplynn, Flickr

It’s not that its spring 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.

Attractive as the berries may be, they are poisonous. Photo: http://www.heritageflowerfarm.com

Beware, however, that the attractive berries are poisonous. That’s where the name “baneberry” comes from (“bane” formerly meant poisonous). Poisonings are rare, though, because of the extremely bitter taste of the berries. Even so, if you grow this plant, teach your children never to eat them. Birds, however, eat the berries with impunity, usually 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). Each plant is 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.

Red baneberry (Actaea rubra). Photo: Kenraiz, Wikimedia Commons

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 midsummer until September, are a dead giveaway.

This is the white-berried red baneberry (Actaea rubra neglecta). Note that the stalk remains thin and green, not turning thick and red like white baneberry. Photo: John Rusk, Flickr

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.

Black baneberry (Actaea spicata). Photo: J. Schneider, flora.nhm-wien.ac

European gardeners may know the Eurasian baneberry or herb Christopher (A. spicata), similar in all respects to red baneberry, but with shiny deep black berries.

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.

White baneberry is the perfect choice for dry shade. Photo: eBay.co.uk

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 turn yellow 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’re very patient, however, the plant will self-sow, at least if it’s grown in a wooded area, but you’ll be years from seeing from a dense patch form. Despite this self-sowing, 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. 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.

White baneberry is slow to spread, so you might want to speed things up by sowing its seeds. Photo: http://www.rangedala.nu

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 pressing 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.

Few Problems

White baneberry is not usually subject to insets or diseases and even slugs, deer and rabbits usually ignore 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 environment.

Varieties

Actaea pachypoda ‘Misty Blue’. Photo: http://www.ballyrobertgardens.com

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 centers.

The pink-berried variety of white baneberry: Actaea pachypoda rubrocarpa. Photo: Frank Vincentz, Wikimedia Commons

A. pachypoda rubrocarpa is occasionally found in the wild. It’s a form with pink to red berries on borne on a reddish-purple stalk. It’s occasionally available in nurseries. I grow it and personally find it less attractive than the normal variety with white berries.


There you go! A pretty North American native forest plant will that illuminate your shade garden in the fall. Try it and see!

2 thoughts on “The Fall Perennial with Doll’s Eyes

  1. I sort of figured that ornamental berries were rare only for us, where there is so much that blooms through autumn and winter. I get the impression that they are more popular for color through cooler winters, when there are not so many flowers. Even here, we have pyracantha, cotoneaster and the native toyon. Heavenly bamboo and hawthorns are less common, but sometimes seen.
    Doll’s eyes was actually mentioned in one of the Harry Potter movies, in one of the classes about magical herbs.

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