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For most of the growing season, white baneberry can be difficult to distinguish from its much more common cousin, red baneberry. The names give the obvious difference away—one has white berries, the other red. Both species are perennial woodland wildflowers sporting compound leaves with irregular teeth along the margins. The white baneberry’s stems and leaves are smooth, lacking the sparse “hair” of the red baneberry. To make things confusing, red baneberry has a white version. All have black dots on the end of the fruit, but the true white baneberry has a larger dot (hence the alternate name, doll’s eye). The easiest way to tell the species apart is the thickness of the flower/fruit stems. White baneberry has thick, stout red fruit stems, while red baneberry (including its white form) have skinny fruit stems. It has white flowers in late May to early June.
Typical of open woodlands and edges of woods and generally in loamy soils. It prefers dappled light such as that provided by primarily deciduous forests.
White baneberry is an easy wildflower to propagate. Add the fruit to a small bucket with water, and (wearing gloves) mash the berries. The pulp with float to the surface while the seeds will sink. Repeat several times with clean water until the seeds are free of pulp. Plant as soon as possible every 2 inches (5 cm) in rows 4 inches (10 cm) apart, at a depth of 1/4 inch (6 mm). Most seed will germinate in the spring.
Some plant poisons predominantly affect mammals but not birds. Baneberries are just such a plant. While the pulpy flesh of the fruit is poisonous to most mammals, birds seem to enjoy the berry all the same. Mammals are clever though and some manage to strip away the pulp to feast on the seed inside.
Areas of Usage:
As a woodland plant, white baneberry does best in dappled light and other shaded areas. Deciduous groves or along woodland trails make excellent sites but sheltered areas in a wildflower garden can work just as well. As always, mimicking the species’ natural conditions helps the specimens to thrive; mulching mimics the forest floor’s natural leaf cover, conserving soil moisture and providing a slow release of nutrients.
A member of the often-poisonous buttercup family, our native baneberries live up to their name. Both species of baneberries on PEI are equally poisonous, although the red baneberry looks more appetizing than the white. A common woodland wildflower family, if you own a woodlot there is a good chance you have red baneberry growing. Even so, give some thought if children or pets will frequent the planting site before adding another poisonous species.