Written by Rhonda Ferree, retired horticulture educator
Some plants are perfect for Halloween. Bat flowers, devils claw, and corpse flower come to mind. Another creepy looking plant is doll's eyes. I'm not sure why dolls with staring, glass eyes are so scary, but they can be truly frightening to some people. I used to have a recurring dream as a little girl about a scary doll in an old house. Weird, I know!
I recently found a doll's eye plant while hiking at Siloam Springs State Park. I'd seen this plant in flower many times, but this was the first time I saw its fruit.
Doll's Eyes (Actaea pachypoda) is an outstanding plant in many ways. It is a native woodland plant in the buttercup family that is found occasionally throughout Illinois. Www.illinoiswildflowers.info says "This species is found in high-quality woodlands where the original ground flora is intact."
Doll's eye is a beautiful spring flowering plant. A medium-sized woodland wildflower, this plant grows one to two foot tall. Its toothed, compound leaves remain attractive throughout most the growing season. In May and June it has tiny white flowers that stand above the foliage on stout stalks. Blooms last about two weeks and are quite showy and fragrant.
The plant gets its name because the fruit resembles china doll eyes, though I find the fruit to be stunning, not scary. However, I can see how the bright red stalks and shiny white berries could be considered eerie. Each berry has a dark purple pupil in its center. Berries persist for four to six weeks in late summer.
Berries and other plant parts are extremely poisonous when eaten. This is probably why most mammal wildlife won't eat it, though are reports of the white-footed mouse eating the berries. Birds such as the American Robin and Yellow-bellied sapsucker eat the berries and help move the seeds to new areas. Mammals ingesting the berries experience a number of poisoning symptoms, which can eventually lead to cardiac arrest and death.
Luckily the white berries are not particularly appealing to eat. However, Americans and early settlers did make a tea of the root for relieving the pain of childbirth. It was also used to improve circulation and cure headache. Still, I wonder how much severe stomach pain the patient endured during treatment.
Doll's eyes are also called white baneberry. It is closely related to the red baneberry (Actaea rubra), which has red berries. Red baneberry is found only in the upper parts of Illinois.
Do you think this plant is Halloween worthy?
MEET THE AUTHOR
As horticulture educator, Rhonda Ferree inspired citizens in local communities to grow their own food and improve their home landscapes. She focused on high quality, impactful programs that taught homeowners how to create energy-efficient landscapes using sustainable practices that increase property values and help the environment.
After 30 years with University of Illinois Extension, Rhonda retired in 2018. She continues to share her passion for horticulture related topics as “Retro Rhonda” on social media.
ABOUT THE BLOG
ILRiverHort is a blog that helps people connect to nature and grow.