The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, October 5, 2007


Biodiversity Corner White baneberry

The white baneberry is sometimes called "Doll's eyes." The red stem and white berries make this plant a colorful addition to our landscape ­ but the berries are poisonous. (Photo by Kay Fairweather)

Certain plants stand out at this time of year because of their fruit or berries. Among these are jack-in-the-pulpit with an upright cluster of bright red berries, pokeweed with a dangling cluster of shiny dark berries on a pink-purple stalk, wild grapes with their strongly scented fruit, and white baneberry with its stark white berries. The least common of these in Carlisle is the white baneberry.

Name. White baneberry is Actaea pachypoda formerly known as Actaea alba. It is a member of the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae) but it looks nothing like a buttercup. Other members of this family include well-known garden plants like larkspur and columbine. They have some obscure characteristics in common which I shall leave as family secrets.

White baneberry is closely related to the red baneberry which I haven't seen in Carlisle, but both are native to this area. The common name comes from the berries, which are poisonous. Bane is a word from old English where it meant fatal injury or ruin. The whole plant is poisonous and the berries are the most poisonous part. Other plants also have the word bane in their name. There is dogbane, which has milky sap that is reputed to be poisonous (my dog gives it the same respect as he gives a fire hydrant); bugbane was once used as a bug repellent; fleabane is a traditional herbal remedy for several ailments but I found no mention of it causing fatal injury or ruin to fleas — so I don't understand that one; my favorite is Leopard's Bane which I have in the garden and so far I have not been bothered by leopards.

When and where seen. Tom Brownrigg spotted some white baneberry in the Estabrook Woods on September 22. The berries were still quite robust on October 2 and will probably persist until frost.

Distinguishing characteristics. White baneberry is a shade-dwelling perennial plant that gets about two feet tall. It has a few compound leaves with heavily-toothed leaflets. In the spring it has a cluster of tiny white flowers borne on a stem that rises above the foliage. When it is flowering it looks similar to the red baneberry but can be distinguished by its very thick flower stalks. The species name, pachypoda, is from pachy meaning thick and poda meaning foot — and in this case refers to the "foot" or the stalk of the flower and consequently the berry. Its most striking feature is the elongated cluster of white berries on a bright pink stalk. Each berry has a pupil-like dark dot (from the flower stigma) giving rise to its other common name, Doll's Eyes. The red baneberry is a bit of a trouble-maker — it occasionally has white berries, but whether red or white the stalks are always thin and the berries form a more rounded cluster than in the white baneberry.

Gardening. White baneberry is used in woodland gardens and native plant gardens. Care must be taken with young children because of the poisonous berries.

Sources. Wyman's Gardening Encyclopedia, Donald Wyman; Common Wildflowers of the Northeastern United States, Carol H. Woodward & Harold William Rickett.

2007 The Carlisle Mosquito