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In the Garden: These are pretty plants with dark secrets

September 26, 2021


While reviewing my inventory of things that are supposed to be somewhere in my garden, I discovered records of a few plants that I’d completely forgotten about, plants that are not growing where they’re supposed to be.

Actaea pachypoda, for instance, added in spring 2015, I’d noted, against the fence just left of the monkshood. I could barely remember planting it, and I don’t recall having seen it in ages. It was like an old movie star that you thought was still around until someone reminds you that they vanished from the scene years ago.

I have a lot of plants, and I do try to keep track of them all. Some perennials are naturally short-lived, or they’re tender ones that I take a risk on planting. I also move things around and occasionally forget to note the new location or the plant’s demise. I’m afraid gardening and inventory control are the antithesis of each other in my world.

As for that missing plant, it’s also known as white baneberry, native to the woodlands of Eastern Canada. It grows to about 45 centimetres (18 inches) with white racemes that give the flowers the look of a bottle brush, but it’s after it produces berries that it becomes a standout. They’re white, clustered on red stems and appear in late summer until frost.

Each berry has a dark spot, and this gives it the other common name, doll’s-eyes, which is a little creepy when you think about it. Even creepier is all parts of the plant are extremely toxic, and if you were to eat the berries you probably wouldn’t finish your walk in the woods since eating them can result in cardiac arrest, even death. The definition of bane in baneberry, often used in common plant names, means a source of harm or ruin, so you have been warned. On a positive note, another common name is bugbane, as it’s believed to repel bedbugs, but I wouldn’t be slipping the berries between the sheets.

There are different species of Actaea, including another native, Actaea racemose, also called black cohosh or black bugbane. It even has another botanical name, Cimicifuga racemose. This was the former name until botanists in the 1990s reclassified it. This is confusing as plants are still sold under both names. I have a cultivar in my garden that goes by the name Cimicifuga ‘Chocoholic,’ while the same plant is also sold as Actaea ‘Chocoholic,’ so don’t buy both thinking you’re getting two different plants.

Unlike doll’s eyes, this plant produces small seeds, not berries, although it’s also poisonous, so don’t mistake the chocolate reference for something edible. Even so, it is a delightful garden plant. The Royal Horticultural Society even gave it its prestigious Award of Garden Merit, and of course, being the RHS, they called it Actaea, not Cimicifuga.

My creepy doll’s eyes might have gone missing, but right now I am enjoying the sight of my ‘Chocoholic’ growing in a shady corner in what I call my woodland section. The chocolaty moniker comes from the bronze-purple leaves. Blooming now, the flower stems are long, also purple, arching above the foliage as much as a metre and a half high (five feet), ending in graceful racemes with mauve-pink flowers that turn to white as they age, lighting up a dark corner.

As for poisonous plants in a garden, do be aware of the dangers, especially of ones that might be tempting to eat. Like me, keep a precise record (hah) and keep an eye on pets and children. As I like to say, if it ain’t on your plate, it shouldn’t be ate.

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