White Baneberry (Actaea Pachypoda,) commonly called Doll’s Eyes, is a flowering plant found in the eastern part of North America. The plant itself is quite striking visually and seems almost alien when encountered in nature. In early spring, the plant appears quite normal, with rich green compound leaves which are toothed and pinnate. But as spring progresses, white flowers appear in a dense cluster numbering between ten and twenty eight flowers, at the top of the stem (see picture below.) These flowers will give way to small berries as the summer passes. As they fully ripen, each white berry will reveal a striking black dot; an eyeball of a doll, or so some people seem to think. The blood red stalks add to the strange-factor, giving the impression that each doll’s eye has a creepy “root” of some sort. The berries are seen July through the first frost in October.
White Baneberry is a perennial plant which will grow from 1½ to 2 feet tall and about 3 feet wide. The plant prefers clay over coarse loamy soils, and is mostly found in hardwood and mixed forest stands with part to full shade, plenty of water and good drainage. A good place to find White Baneberry is in ravines or on north facing hillsides. The geographic range of wild White Baneberry is from southern Canada to Georgia and from the Eastern shore all the way to Minnesota. Despite this wide range, Doll’s Eyes are not very common in the wild. The plant reproduces from seeds. Each white eyeball contains 6 small seeds in two vertical rows which are dispersed by natural means.
One Dangerous Plant
Both the berries and the plant body (stems, leaves, and roots) are considered poisonous to humans. The berries, although enticing, are the most poisonous part of the plant. They contain cardiogenic toxins which can have an immediate sedative effect on human cardiac muscle tissue; basically relaxing the heart. Ingesting enough of the berries can lead to cardiac arrest and death. Oddly enough, the berries are harmless to a few species of birds and mice, which are the plant’s primary seed dispersers through consumption and defecation methods. Other symptoms associated with White Baneberry poisoning include burning of mouth and throat, heavy salivation, moderate to severe stomach cramps, headache, diarrhea, dizziness and in some cases hallucinations. Baneberry is from the Old English words “bana” or “bona”, which both mean “slayer” or “murderer,” which after seeing the potential harm from this plant, is very fitting.
Consumption of as much as 6 berries is enough to make a human being quite ill. Fortunately, the berries taste extremely bitter, which is a natural dissuasion for continued consumption. Although this plant is extremely toxic, no records exist of any actual fatalities from ingestion. Additionally, external contact with the plant may cause skin irritation or blistering in people with sensitive skin.
Homeopathic Uses for Doll’s Eyes
Most plants have some sort of medicinal value, and Doll’s Eyes are no exception. However in this case, the homeopathic use is very small and comes with an inherent risk. It has been used to relieve pain associated with childbirth, pre-menstrual cramps, and as a general treatment for the common cold. The treatment is administered by brewing tea from roots, but the strength of the tea isn’t readily identifiable. Doll’s Eye was once thought to benefit the circulatory system, but no studies have been done to prove or disprove this claim. White Baneberry has also been used as a black dye, but only if alum is added.
Red Baneberry – A Different Kind of Doll’s Eyes
White Baneberry has a sister plant called Red Baneberry; also referred to as Doll’s eyes by some people. Two major differences exist between the white and red varieties; berries are red with a black dot instead of white and it’s located in a different geography. Its main range in western North America extends from Alaska south through the Coast Ranges and the Sierra Nevada
in California through the Rocky Mountains to Arizona and New Mexico. It too is also considered poisonous.