White Baneberry (Doll's Eyes) Plant Profile

Toxicity and Special Considerations

White baneberry with its pinkish-red stems and doll's eyes.
David Beaulieu

White baneberry (Actaea pachypoda), also known as doll's eyes, is a popular plant to grow in gardens due to its striking visual interest. In addition to its clusters of tiny white flowers, the plant produces white berries with deep purple "pupils" that give them the appearance of a doll's eyes. It's best to plant seeds of this slow-growing perennial in the late autumn, or plant seedlings in the early spring after your last frost. The plant is native to North America, so you don’t have to worry about it being an invasive species in your garden. And while it can self-seed, it typically doesn’t spread aggressively and overtake other plants.

However, before you set your heart on growing white baneberry, be aware that all parts of the plant are toxic to people and many animals. The glucosides in baneberry break down during digestion or when the plant is otherwise wounded and release the toxin protoanemonin, which can cause gastrointestinal issues, cardiac abnormalities, and even death.

Toxicity of White Baneberry

The "bane" in baneberry is a good clue that this is a poisonous plant. Historically, "bane" was a term used to mean killer or slayer, and it was often incorporated into names of plants that are toxic.

White baneberry is toxic to humans and animals, including dogs, cats, horses, livestock, and rodents. However, birds can eat the berries without issue, which results in spreading the seeds through their droppings and propagating the plant.

Toxicity typically occurs via ingestion, but the plant also can cause skin irritation if it’s crushed enough to start breaking down those glucosides into the protoanemonin toxin. In fact, when the plant is chewed, it can cause mouth sores and other irritation. While all parts of the plant are poisonous, the roots and berries contain the most toxins. Eating just a few berries can cause a serious or even fatal reaction, especially in small children and animals. However, they have a very bitter taste, which can help to deter people and animals from eating them.

If you need to work with this plant in your garden, it’s best to wear a pair of gardening gloves. Also, make sure you safely seal any parts of the plant that you remove in a yard waste bag. It can be helpful to put any plant clippings on a tarp as you work in your garden, so they don’t get lost in your grass or soil.

Symptoms of Poisoning

There are a variety of symptoms of baneberry poisoning that appear in both humans and animals, including: 

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach pain
  • Drooling
  • Mouth sores or irritation
  • Skin irritation
  • Headache 
  • Dizziness
  • Disorientation
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Irregular heart rate

The mouth irritation commonly occurs soon after ingesting the plant, so it’s often the first clue that poisoning has taken place. The gastrointestinal and other symptoms generally come on within 12 to 24 hours of ingestion. If you suspect baneberry poisoning, seek medical treatment immediately. IV fluids are often recommended to flush out the toxins, and other supportive care, such as oxygen, might be necessary. 

Gardening Considerations

This plant otherwise can make a nice, low-maintenance, ornamental addition to your landscape. In fact, because most wild animals (besides birds) ignore the berries, they tend to stay on the plants for a long time to provide visual interest. White baneberry is a native, not invasive, species, meaning it won’t upset the natural balance of flora. And it’s not that vigorous of a spreader in your garden; it typically stays contained to the area where you want it.

Botanical Name Actaea pachypoda
Common Names White baneberry, doll's eyes
Plant Type Herbaceous perennial
Mature Size 1.5 to 2.5 feet tall and 2 to 3 feet wide
Bloom Time Spring
Flower Color White

Identification

White baneberry grows to around 2 feet tall on average. The perennial plant emerges from the ground each spring, forming branching stems with leaves that have serrated edges. The leaves are around 3 to 6 inches long and 1 to 3 inches wide. They're a medium green color and often change to a golden yellow in the fall.

In the late spring, small white flower clusters appear on green stems that stretch above the foliage. These stems turn a reddish color as the flowers give way to the white berries in the summer. The berries often remain on the plant into autumn. In the winter, the plant dies above the surface, but its roots remain underground to regrow it for the next season. If you’re growing your plant from seed, it might not produce flowers (or fruit) until its second growing season. 

Where It's Found

White baneberry is a wildflower that grows naturally in mature forests. Consequently, many people use this plant in their shade gardens. Its native area extends from Canada down to the state of Georgia and from the East Coast west to Minnesota. It grows best in USDA planting zones 3 to 8.

The flower's natural habitat is a dense, moist forest with partial shade to full shade. It is tolerant of most soil types as long as it has even moisture and good drainage. However, organically rich, humusy soil is ideal. It also prefers a slightly acidic to neutral soil pH.

How to Remove White Baneberry

White baneberry is fairly easy to get rid of because it’s not a vigorous spreader. To remove your plant, first saturate the soil around it to make it easier to slide out the plant. Then, dig around the plant’s root ball and gently pry it out of the ground. Aim not to break the roots, as any piece of root left in the soil potentially can grow a new plant. Spend some time digging in the soil for remaining roots, and remove any you see. Remember to wear gardening gloves for this process, and carefully dispose of all the pieces of the plant.

To ensure no new baneberry plants sprout up, you can cover the site with a piece of cardboard or tarp for at least one full growing season. That will smother any new plant that tries to grow. After that, the site should be free of baneberry.

Varieties of White Baneberry

There is only one hybrid variety of white baneberry: Actaea pachypoda 'Misty Blue'. The most notable feature of this cultivar is its bluish-green foliage that retains its color for the entire season.

Furthermore, white baneberry is often associated with red baneberry (Actaea rubra), which greatly resembles white baneberry but has red berries. Red baneberry produces its berries a little earlier in the summer than white baneberry.

Another associated flower is black cohosh (Actaea racemosa), also known as black baneberry. Black cohosh does indeed produce black berries, and it has showier flowers than white or red baneberry. Some cultivars of black cohosh include:

  • 'Atropurpurea': Grows 5 to 6 feet tall
  • 'Brunette': Features bronze leaves and grows 3 to 4 feet tall
  • 'Hillside Black Beauty': Grows 7 feet tall
Red baneberry
Red baneberry.  HHelene / Getty Images
Black baneberry
Black baneberry.  Giorez / Getty Images 
Article Sources
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  1. Actaea Pachypoda. North Carolina Extension Website