by Sophie Mazowita
A dozen eyeballs, dangling from their sockets, stared up at me on my last walk through the woods. I was strolling through the forest on a gloomy Sunday afternoon, seeking out plants for a botany project, when I came across the startling sight. The small eyes stood out from ten yards away, stretched out on their swollen red arteries. A small black pupil marked the middle of each white, its stare drawing me in.
A few steps closer and I recognized my “observer” as a common yet ever-creepy resident of our woodlands: the 2-foot tall White baneberry (Actaea pachypoda). The plant is a member of the buttercup family, but it bears little resemblance to its golden-flowered relatives. It’s most aptly known as Doll’s eyes, and true to this moniker, each of its white berries looks like it has been plucked straight out of the head of a porcelain doll. Up to 30 of the fruits sit affixed to a stalk that towers over the plant’s leaves and turns a bright red as the summer progresses. The black “pupils” are actually the vestiges of some flower parts from earlier in the season.
The plants are poisonous to humans (though I doubt any would be tempted), but they offer food to birds. Imagine the sight of a bird pulling an “eye” from its thick red stalk and swallowing it whole! A visit to a hardwood or mixed forest will offer your best chance at viewing this spectacle; the baneberry plants grow in the shade below mature maple, basswood, and other broadleaf trees. The white berries should stand out above a dozen or more jagged-edged green leaflets that strech out horizontally, about a foot off the ground.
Doll’s eyes is but one of the attractions of early autumn woodlands. Most people would pick the spring as the prime time to view wildflowers; when trees are still bare, spring ephemerals like trilliums and trout lily put on a show on the sun-soaked forest floor. The end of the growing season, however, offers a whole other set of treasures. White baneberry’s eyes follow you through the woods until the frost hits. Jewelweed seed pods offer an explosive surprise to anyone who brushes past. Beech branches thick with fruit begin to drop their bounty, a favourite of black bears. A leisurely walk and discerning eye will offer many rewards.
What’s your latest discovery?