Woodland Plants: Red, White and Blue (Berries) By Darcie McKelvey

Red, white and blue are the colours of three berries that are easily identified and likely to be found in woodlands starting in late summer and early autumn. They are from herbaceous plants known as red baneberry (Actaea rubra), white baneberry (Actaea pachypoda), and blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides, Caulophyllum giganteum).


Many will be familiar with white baneberry by its common name doll’s eyes. The name doll’s eyes is due to the pupil-like dark spot dotting the white berries. The shiny white berries, the size of peas, clustered on a red stalk, are a dramatic accent in otherwise green/brown surroundings in the fall. Although poisonous to humans, giving rise to the name baneberry, the berries are food for chipmunks, ruffed grouse and white-footed mice.

Earlier in the season, white baneberry is more difficult to identify. It is usually 1 ½ to 2 feet tall, with compound leaves divided two or three times into groups of three. Leaflets are oval, toothed and often hairy on the veins underneath. The plants emerge mid-spring and flower in early summer (end of May/June). The flowers have between 4 and 10 thin petals, which are shorter than the numerous white stamens in the centre. Several flowers cluster together in a raceme at the top of a tall, leafless stalk.

Red baneberry has bright red berries on black stalks that ripen 2 to 3 weeks before white baneberry (Photo: Terry Spivey, USDA Forest Service).

White baneberry and red baneberry are sisters in the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae). They are part of a genus of eight species and the only two found in Ontario.  Until the berries start to emerge in July/August, the two species are nearly indistinguishable.

If you look closely at a flowering baneberry, the flower stalk of white baneberry is thick, while that of red baneberry is thin. Also, the flower cluster of white baneberry is elongated, whereas red baneberry is more rounded. The bright red berries on black stalks ripen 2 to 3 weeks before white baneberry. The red berries also have a black dot on them, but it is less conspicuous.

Both baneberries inhabit partial shade to shaded forests that remain moist and are rich in humus. Red baneberry is hardier, will grow father north and it prefers more acidic sites (pH of 5-6). If you find baneberry in an area with numerous conifers, it is more likely red baneberry.  In many places, both species are found together.

Baneberries are easy to grow in comparison to many woodland plants.  If you are serious about growing them, the brown, wedge-shaped seeds must be removed from the berry pulp as soon as the berries are ripe. There will be 4 to 8 seeds in each berry.  Sow them immediately under a thin layer of soil outdoors in a shaded, moist spot and cover them with leaves.  Some may germinate the next spring, whereas others may take two years to germinate.  It takes about three years for the plant to produce flowers and fruit.

Blue Cohosh

One of my favorite forbs is Caulophyllum thalictroides or blue cohosh.  As its name suggests, the 3-to 4-mm wide berries have a royal blue covering.  Unless this plant receives constant moisture, the leaves will turn yellow and die back in late summer, leaving only single blue berries sticking up at the end of stems.

Recent DNA evidence suggests that what we formerly thought were two varieties of C. thalictroides are in fact two different species, one of which has been named Caulophyllum giganteum.

In very early spring, C. giganteum emerges with unusual purplish black leaves, while C. thalictroides emerges two weeks later, with foliage that is more yellowish-green.  As mature plants, blue cohosh is 1 ½ to 3 feet tall, and the foliage has a blue hue. Leaves are compound and start halfway up thick stems. The leaves are usually divided into 3 or sometimes more leaflets. The terminal leaflet has 3-lobed tips; lateral leaflets have fewer lobes. They remind one of sassafras leaves.

Emerging blue cohosh foliage.  (Photo: Darcie McKelvey).

The flowers are small and often missed. C. giganteum has star-shaped, greenish-purple petals and pointed purple sepals which open as the foliage emerges from the earth. C. thalictroides has greenish-yellow flowers and  yellow, green or brown sepals that are round. C. giganteum has the larger flowers of the two, but C. thalictroides is likely to have more flowers together.  Blue cohosh grows well in shaded areas and on rich, moist sites.

Blue cohosh do not transplant well, and growing them from seed is challenging. They do not produce many seeds (each berry contains only one seed).  The seeds like moisture and dry storage is fatal; the chemical inhibitors in the blue film covering the seed must be thoroughly washed off.  Germination requires more than two years of consistently moist conditions to develop a rootlet.  The first leaves will surface the spring after the radicle appears. The plant grows slowly, requiring four years to reach maturity.

Historically, blue cohosh was used in the treatment of various uterine disorders. The collection of the plant for medicinal purposes reduced its numbers so that it is not as common as baneberry. If you have it in your woodland, it should be treasured.


ROM Field Guide to Wildflowers of Ontario by T. Dickinson, D. Metsger, J. Bull and R. Dickinson, 2004, McClelland and Stewart Ltd.

Growing and Propagating Wildflowers of the United Sates and Canada by William Cullina, 2000, The New England Wild Flower Society

About the author: Darcie is a native plant enthusiast who considers her entire 10-acre woodland to be a garden.

Re-printed from the S&W Report
© Ontario Woodlot Association

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