Doll's Eyes
Actaea pachypoda
Buttercup family (Ranunculaceae)

Description: This perennial wildflower is 1–2' tall and either unbranched or sparingly branched. The alternate compound leaves are 2- or 3-pinnate and large in size; the leaflets are organized into groups of 3 (less often 5). The lower compound leaves have long petioles, while the petioles of the upper compound leaves are shorter. The leaflets are up to 4" long and 2" across; they are more or less ovate in shape, while their margins are shallowly cleft and strongly toothed. Usually, the terminal leaflets are a little larger than the lateral leaflets; the terminal leaflets have slender petiolules (leaflet stalks), while the lateral leaflets are either sessile or they have slender petiolules. The upper surface of each leaflet is dull green and hairless; the lower surface is also hairless. A raceme of white flowers on a long naked peduncle develops from the axil of the uppermost compound leaf. Initially, this raceme is about 1–3" long and short-cylindrical in shape, but it becomes longer (3-6") when its flowers are replaced with berries. Each raceme has 10-28 flowers on widely spreading pedicels; these pedicels are short (about "), glabrous, and stout.

Each flower spans about " across, consisting of 4-10 white petals, a dozen or more white stamens, and a superior ovary with a short stout style. At the tip of this style is a large persistent stigma that is translucent white (although it later becomes dark). The sepals are early-deciduous and insignificant. Each petal is narrowly oblanceolate and often truncate at its tip. The blooming period occurs from late spring to very early summer; it lasts about 2 weeks. The flowers are replaced by berries that are ovoid-globoid and up to 1/3" (8 mm.) in length. These berries become bright white when they are mature, while the pedicels and central axis of the raceme become bright red. At the outer end of each berry, there is a dark spot from the persistent stigma. Inside each berry, there are several seeds (fewer than 10). The root system is fibrous and rhizomatous.

Cultivation: Dappled sunlight to medium shade, moist to mesic conditions, and a fertile loamy soil with abundant organic matter is preferred. The compound leaves may become yellowish if they are exposed to excessive sunlight.

Range & Habitat: The native Doll's Eyes is occasional throughout Illinois (see Distribution Map). Habitats include rich deciduous woodlands, ravines, thinly wooded bluffs, the bases of bluffs, and shaded seeps. This species is found in high quality woodlands where the original ground flora is intact.

Faunal Associations: The flowers lack nectar and provide only pollen to visiting insects. These visitors are mainly Halictid bees; Robertson (1929) observed Augochlorella striata, Lasioglossum pectoralis, and Lasioglossum zephyrus. Various birds eat the white berries to a limited extent; this includes the Ruffed Grouse, Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker, and American Robin (Eastman, 1992; pp. 12-13). These birds help to distribute the seeds to a new areas. The White-Footed Mouse also eats the berries. Because the foliage is toxic from a cardiac glycoside, it is not eaten by mammalian herbivores. Other parts of this plant are toxic as well, although birds are apparently immune to the toxic effects of the berries. The overall value of this wildflower to wildlife is low.

Photographic Location: Deciduous woodlands in east-central Illinois.

Comments: This is one of many wonderful wildflowers that can be found in eastern deciduous woodlands during the spring. Doll's Eyes has attractive foliage and striking white berries, which become mature during the late summer or early fall. These berries resemble the eyes of old-fashioned china dolls, hence the common name. Another common name of this species is White Baneberry, which refers to the appearance of the berries and their toxic nature to humans. Another scientific name of this species is Actaea alba. The other species in this genus, Actaea rubra (Red Baneberry), is restricted to northern Illinois. This latter species has red berries (usually) and the pedicels of its flowers/berries are more slender than those of Doll's Eyes. Each berry of Red Baneberry contains more seeds (10 or more) than a berry of Doll's Eyes, and its seeds are smaller in size. However, there is an uncommon form of Red Baneberry that produces white berries.