White Baneberry: All About Doll's Eyes Plants, Red Baneberry, Cohosh

North American Native Wildflowers for Shade

White baneberry with its pinkish-red stems and doll's eyes.
White baneberry has berries that look like a doll's eyes. David Beaulieu

Both red and white baneberry are great novelty plants to grow, but the white type offers greater visual interest. Find out why, what warnings you need to be aware of, and how similar plants can also add interest to your yard.

Botany and Features of Doll's Eyes (or "White Baneberry") 

White baneberry bears the botanical name, Actaea pachypoda. The alternate scientific name, Actaea alba is easier to remember, since the species name, alba means "white." The plant is an herbaceous perennial and belongs to the buttercup family.

One of the plant's outstanding features is its berries, which are white with what appear to be black (but are actually deep purple) "pupils"; thus the alternate common name of "doll's eyes." These unique berries are supported on stems that are an attractive deep-pink.

The plant becomes about 2 feet tall, with a slightly greater spread. It puts out white flowers in clusters in May or June. Its leaves are compound.

Growing Conditions

Indigenous to eastern North America, white baneberry is listed for planting zones 3 to 8. Plant it in partial shade to full shade and in a soil fertilized with compost. White baneberry prefers soil that is evenly moist (moderately damp but well-drained).

Similar Plants, Name Origins

White baneberry is associated by wildflower-lovers with a number of other plants (for example, plants similar in appearance, having compound leaves and flowers like white baneberry's). The list is headed by red baneberry (Actaea rubra), which greatly resembles white baneberry. The species name, rubra, means "red" in Latin (alluding to its red berries). Red baneberry produces its berries in the first half of the summer, while white baneberry waits till the second half. There's a baneberry in Britain, too, where it is called "Herb Christopher" (Actaea spicata).

Black cohosh (Actaea racemosa, formerly Cimicifuga racemosa), alternatively known as "bugbane," is also a native North American shade perennial (other common names for it are "black snakeroot" and "black baneberry").

Black cohosh does, indeed, produce black berries. Because of its showier flowers, it is a more common landscape plant than is either white or red baneberry. But all three belong to the same genus. The plant can have either green leaves or darker foliage. Cultivars with darker foliage are more popular and include:

  • Atropurpurea (5 to 6 feet tall)
  • Brunette (bronze leaves; 3 to 4 feet tall)
  • Hillside Black Beauty (7 feet tall)

Other plants that are similar (in terms of appearance and growing conditions) but with showier flowers (and, for that reason, enjoy greater popularity) are:

  • False goat's beard (Astilbe; white, pink, purple, peach, lavender, magenta, or red flowers; height range of 10 inches to 4 feet)
  • Goat's beard (Aruncus dioicus; white flowers; 4 to 6 feet tall)

Don't confuse black cohosh with blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides), which is not an Actaea. But blue cohosh is native to the same region, is another shade perennial with compound leaves, and is another berry producer: It has poisonous, blue berries. Its species name, thalictroides, means "like Thalictrum," an allusion to its resemblance to meadow rue. Unlike the baneberries, which are part of the buttercup family, blue cohosh belongs to the barberry family, as does the Mayapple plant. The name, "cohosh," is thought to be of Algonquian origin; an alternate common name for blue cohosh is "papoose root," while black cohosh is alternatively referred to as "squaw root."

The "bane" in "baneberry" and "bugbane" means these are poisonous plants. Indeed, garden pests will leave your baneberry berries alone for this reason. And "bugbane" is so called because it repels insects. Another example of a plant with "bane" in its name is Aconitum, that notoriously toxic plant that is sometimes called "wolf's bane" or "leopard's bane" when it is not referred to as "monkshood."

Uses in Landscaping

One gardener's bane is another's boon. Baneberry is potentially a baneful perennial if nibbling children will be wandering through your shade garden. Despite its toxic qualities, it's traditionally been used in herbal medicine, to treat, for example, chronic constipation (but never experiment with herbs before consulting herbalists).

Native-plant lovers in eastern North America find white baneberry a boon for their shade gardens or woodland gardens. If you live outside of this region, you can naturalize white baneberry. The plant's height makes it well-suited to the middle section of a three-rowed perennial bed.

Both the red and white versions of the plant furnish striking berries that are a fine addition to your landscaping. White baneberry is prettier due to the deep pink color of the berries' stems. This seemingly unnatural color is sure to stun passersby as they attempt to decide whether the color is real or a hoax perpetrated by some impish woodland sprite brandishing a paintbrush.