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

North American Native Wildflowers

Image of white baneberry with its pinkish-red stems.
White baneberry is also known as "doll's eyes.". David Beaulieu

What Is White Baneberry (AKA Doll's Eyes)?

White baneberry bears the botanical name, Actaea pachypoda. The alternate scientific name, Actaea alba is perhaps easier to remember, since the species name, alba means "white" in Latin (thus dovetailing with the chief common name). An alternate common name is "doll's eyes" (see below). 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 also very attractive, being a deep pink in color.

The plant typically achieves a mature height of approximately 2 feet, with a slightly greater spread. This native perennial puts out white flowers in clusters in May or June, depending on where you live. Its leaves are compound.

Growing Conditions

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

Similar Plants, Name Origins

Mention of Actaea pachypoda will bring to the minds of wildflower enthusiasts a number of other plants through association.

 For example, some are similar in appearance, having compound leaves and flowers that are reminiscent of white baneberry's.

The list is headed by red baneberry (Actaea rubra), which is a very similar plant to white baneberry. The specific epithet, rubra means "red" in Latin and derives from the fact that its berries are red in color.

Red baneberry produces its berries in the first half of the summer, while white baneberry waits till the second half. Incidentally, there is a baneberry in Britain, too, where it is called "Herb Christopher" (Actaea spicata), according to Botanical.com.

Black cohosh (Actaea racemosa, formerly Cimicifuga racemosa), alternatively known as "bugbane," is also a native North American shade perennial. Yet another common name for it -- and perhaps one that is more apropos -- is "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. Note, however, that all three belong to the same genus. Other plants that are similar but with showier flowers -- and, for that reason, enjoy greater popularity in landscaping -- are:

  1. Astilbe
  2. Goat's beard (Aruncus dioicus)

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. You guessed it: it bears blue berries. Its specific epithet, 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, thus it shouldn't be a total surprise that an alternate common name for blue cohosh is "papoose root" and that black cohosh is alternatively referred to as "squaw root."

Speaking of name origins, that "bane" in the names "baneberry" and "bugbane" refers to the fact that 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

Of baneberry, it is surely accurate to surmise that one gardener's bane is another's boon. I advise against growing this potentially baneful perennial if nibbling children will be wandering through your shade garden. Interestingly, in spite of its toxic qualities, Actaea has traditionally been used in herbal medicine. But since I am not a trained herbalist, I will content myself with a mere mention of this historical fact -- as well as a quick warning against ingesting these plants unless guided by an expert in the medicinal use of herbs -- and instead move on to an assessment of the possible landscaping uses to which Actaea can be put.

Aficionados of native plants who live in eastern North America may well find white baneberry a boon for their shade gardens or woodland gardens. If you live outside of this region, you may be interested in trying to 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. I have a slight preference for white baneberry because of the deep pink color of the berries' stems. This seemingly unnatural color is sure to elicit a double-take from those unfamiliar with the plant, as they attempt to decide whether the color is real or a hoax perpetrated by some impish woodland sprite brandishing a paintbrush.