How to Grow White Baneberry (Doll's Eyes)

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 late autumn or plant seedlings in the early spring after your last frost. The plant native to North America grows to around 2 feet tall on average. And while it can self-seed, it typically doesn’t spread aggressively and overtake other plants.

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
Sun Exposure Part shade, shade
Soil Type Moist, well-drained, and humus-rich
Soil pH Less than 6.8
Bloom Time Spring
Flower Color White
Hardiness Zones 38
Native Areas Eastern North America (eastern Canada, and the Midwestern and eastern United States)
Toxicity Toxic to humans and all animals except birds

White Baneberry Care

This plant makes 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.

Light

White baneberry is a wildflower that grows naturally in mature forests. Consequently, many people use this plant in their shade gardens, although it can tolerate areas with partial to full shade.

Soil

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.

Water

The plant's desire for moist soil will require it to receive regular watering, especially during hot, dry summers.

Temperature and Humidity

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 so it can tolerate a wide range of temperatures and humidity conditions.

Fertilizer

Planting in rich soil will eliminate the need for any fertilizer during the growing season. A thin layer of mulch applied in late fall or early winter will protect the roots before the frost season.

Is White Baneberry Toxic?

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.

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.

While toxicity typically occurs via ingestion, the plant can also 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. 

White Baneberry Varieties

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-colored 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 

Pruning

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.

How to Grow White Baneberry From Seed

Start your seeds indoors in late winter, making sure to keep the soil moist until the seeds germinate. Once transplanted outside, the plant won't produce flowers (or fruit) until its second growing season. 

Overwintering

Little care is needed to safely protect plants over the winter. The green stems of spring plants transition to a reddish color in the summer and autumn. The plant's berries remain on all the way through into autumn. In the winter, the plant dies above the surface, but its roots remain underground to regrow it for the next season.

Article Sources
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  1. Spira, Timothy P. Waterfalls and Wildflowers in the Southern Appalachians: Thirty Great Hikes. University of North Carolina Press, 2015

  2. Actaea Pachypoda. North Carolina State University Extension

  3. Guide To Poisonous Plants - Baneberry. Colorado State University