White Baneberry – Evil Eyes
The common name for white baneberry, “doll’s eyes,” belies this plant’s toxic nature. Far from being something for a child to play with, the white and black fruits (the “doll’s eyes”) of white baneberry (Actaea pachypoda) are highly poisonous. The black dot on the round white fruits of white baneberry is the remnant of the flower’s stigma. The fruits are particularly attractive when their thick stalks, as well as the main stalk to which they are attached, turn a bright pink. The “bane” in baneberry indicates that the plant can cause illness or even death if ingested. However, many types of birds feed on them fruits without ill effect.
Baneberry’s small white petals are the source of a rose-like fragrance that is attractive to many species of insects. Strangely, the main pollinator of this species in the Northeast is an introduced species of European snout beetle. The beetles have perhaps replaced a native beetle that was the original pollinator of this species.
Another species of baneberry (Actaea rubra) can be found in the Northeast as well. It is similar in appearance to white baneberry with some minor differences in the shape of its inflorescence (flower cluster), and a major difference in the color of its fruits, which are a bright red with a small black spot. It is commonly called red baneberry and blooms a bit earlier than white baneberry where both occur.
Learn more about both baneberries and other spring wildflowers in Carol Gracie’s book, Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast: A Natural History.