White baneberry (Actaea pachypoda) is a popular novelty plant to grow, due to its striking visual interest. In addition to its clusters of tiny white flowers, the plant produces white berries that have nearly black (actually deep purple) "pupils" that give the berries the appearance of traditional china doll's eyes. These unique berries are supported on stems that are an attractive deep pink.
But before you set your heart on growing white baneberry, be aware that the plant is poisonous, including the leaves, stalk, and especially the berries. This is not a good choice of plant for gardens where children may roam.
White baneberry is an herbaceous perennial that belongs to the buttercup family. It grows to about 2 feet tall, with a slightly greater spread, and flowers in May or June. Its famous (and infamous) white berries develop through the summer and typically stay on the plant until the fall frost.
|Botanical Name||Actaea pachypoda|
|Common Name||White baneberry, doll's eyes|
|Plant Type||Herbaceous perennial|
|Mature Size||18 to 24 inches tall and 2 to 3 feet wide|
|Sun Exposure||Part shade to full shade|
|Soil Type||Rich, well-drained|
|Soil pH||6.8 to 7.5|
|Hardiness Zones||3 to 8|
|Native Area||North America|
How to Grow
White baneberry is a wildflower that grows naturally in mature forests. Its native area extends from Georgia to Canada and from the East Coast to Minnesota. The flower's natural habitat is a dense, moist forest with dappled light. The same conditions are ideal for growing it in your home landscape. You can grow this wildflower from seeds or buy plants from specialty suppliers. Often, plants grown from seed do not flower until the second year.
White baneberry prefers soil that is evenly moist—moderately damp but well-drained. It is tolerant of most soil types, provided the soil drains.
Water as needed to keep the soil moist and prevent it from drying out completely. In a shady environment, it shouldn't need a lot of water.
Temperature and Humidity
White baneberry's native area is the best indication that this plant isn't ideally suited for dry, hot climates. But being a wildflower from far-north regions, it can survive very cold winters.
This wildflower does not need added fertilizers to thrive or flower. You can give it all the nutrients it needs by feeding the soil with compost before planting and each spring.
Related Species and Varieties
White baneberry is often associated with red baneberry (Actaea rubra), which greatly resembles white baneberry but has red berries. Red baneberry produces its berries in the first half of the summer, while white baneberry waits until the second half. Britain also has baneberry, and it is called 'Herb Christopher' (Actaea spicata).
Another associated flower is the black cohosh (Actaea racemosa), or bugbane, also a native North American shade perennial. Also called black snakeroot and black baneberry, black cohosh does indeed produce black berries, and it has showier flowers than white or red baneberry, making it more a more popular landscape plant than baneberry. Black cohosh can have either green leaves or darker foliage. Cultivars with darker foliage include:
- 'Atropurpurea' (5 to 6 feet tall)
- 'Brunette' (bronze leaves; 3 to 4 feet tall)
- 'Hillside Black Beauty' (7 feet tall)
There is only one commonly known hybrid variety of white baneberry: 'Misty Blue' Actaea pachypoda. The most notable feature of this cultivar is its bluish-green foliage that retains its color for the entire season. 'Misty Blue' was discovered at Mt. Cuba Center and comes from similar plants of unknown origin.
Toxicity of White Baneberry
The "bane" in baneberry is a good clue that these are poisonous plants. 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 no exception.
Indeed, garden pests will leave your baneberry berries alone, and so should you. While indigenous Americans used the roots of white baneberry for medicinal purposes, the roots are poisonous, like the rest of the plant. Ingesting the plant or its berries can cause symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, cramps, mouth blisters, confusion, and headache. The plant's poison also has cardiogenic properties and can cause cardiac arrest (heart attack) in children.
Birds can eat the doll's eye berries, which is how the plant is distributed—via the seeds in the birds' droppings.
Uses in Landscaping
One gardener's bane is another's boon. 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 by planting the berries that fall to the ground as soon as they are ripe.
The plant's height makes it well-suited to the middle section of a three-rowed perennial bed. White baneberry is favored by some over other baneberry plants because of the deep pink color of its berry stems.