Featured Poison

Halloween Special: Creepy Doll’s Eyes

Dolls are creepy. I suspect that the only people that like dolls are the little kids that play with them and adults that might benefit from a psychological evaluation. I jest of course. Not really. It’s those glassy, vacant eyes that creep me out. And I’m sure those horror movies I watched as a kid about demonically possessed dolls didn’t help either.

Actaea pachypoda (Doll's Eyes) by Robert E. Wright (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Actaea pachypoda (Doll’s Eyes) by Robert E. Wright (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Now imagine you’re alone in the woods, minding your own business, tra-la-la-la-laling down the trail. You hear a twig snap that breaks you out of your rainbows and unicorns slumber. Your heart races a bit. You listen again. Not for more twigs snapping, but for banjo music. Because you’ve also seen Deliverance. You pick up the pace and hurry down the trail. As you round a corner you stumble and fall face first into a thicket of brush. A bit dazed, you sit up and find yourself face to face with eyeballs skewered onto a blood-drenched plant.

After you’ve evacuated the last bit of your bowels, you realize that those aren’t eyeballs on a stick placed there by a homicidal collector of body parts. No, what you’ve stumbled upon are Doll’s Eyes, or more precisely the white berry of Actaea pachypoda.

Also called “white baneberry” or “white cohosh,” Actaea pachypoda grows well in the shady forests of the eastern United States and Canada, and grows about 2 feet high with a span of 3 feet. The white “Doll’s Eye” berry forms in the summertime and will persist until late fall.

The obvious question is “are they edible?” No. The rule of thumb I learned – from where, I have no idea – regarding wild berry edibility is:

  • Blue – usually OK
  • Red – Sometimes
  • White – Never

Now, I don’t recommend anyone eat anything in the wild unless they are 100% certain of what it is. Wild blueberries? I can get into that. Wild blackberries? No problem. Eyeballs on a stick? No, just no.

Actaea pachypoda (Dolls Eyes) by Ottawa County Parks (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Actaea pachypoda (Dolls Eyes) by Ottawa County Parks (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Your refusal to eat wild eyeballs is a good thing. The creepy berries are poisonous and have the potential to kill you . . . if you can choke one down. The berries are hideously bitter, which is Nature’s way of saying “Hey! Don’t eat me.” This is probably why I can’t find any record of human fatalities. I’m sure someone has, but they just wouldn’t admit to eating the cursed berries before they croaked.

Likewise, it’s difficult to find the exact culprits behind the toxicity. Doll’s Eyes are reportedly cardiotoxic due to cardiac glycosides, much like oleander and foxglove. The lack of anything definitive is surprising, since a closely related species, Actaea racemosa, or Black Cohosh, which is also prevalent in the eastern U.S., is widely used as a supplement for premenstrual symptoms (PMS) and menopause. And because black cohosh is acquired in the wild for such supplements, there is a great interest in being able to determine if the supply has been adulterated, either purposefully or accidentally, with other Actaea species.

To figure this out researchers have looked at creating a “chemical fingerprint” for Black Cohosh (1). But when I compare the concentrations of various chemicals and glycosides between Black Cohosh and Dolls Eyes, I don’t see a discernible difference, or a notable presence or absence of one particular chemical, that could account for drastic differences in toxicity. There are, however, chemical differences between these two North American species with their Asian counterparts.

There are many messages in this tale. One, don’t go eating any strange berries, particularly one’s that are white and look like eyeballs on a bloody stick. Two, dolls are just plain creepy. And most importantly, if you are in the woods and hear banjo music, run!

Doll by Ella Patenall (CC BY 2.0)

Doll by Ella Patenall (CC BY 2.0)

*** Homepage featured image of Actaea pachypoda (Dolls Eyes) by Rizka (CC BY-SA 4.0) ***


1. Jiang, Bei, Chunhui Ma, Timothy Motley, Fredi Kronenberg, and Edward J. Kennelly. “Phytochemical Fingerprinting to Thwart Black Cohosh Adulteration: A 15 Actaea Species Analysis.” Phytochemical Analysis 22.4 (2011): 339-51.

2 thoughts on “Halloween Special: Creepy Doll’s Eyes

  1. Deep purplish-black belladonna berries that look sort of like big blueberries are very common in woodlands and they even taste pleasant. Three berries are enough to kill a small child. So, correct your mnemonics.

    • ” Now, I don’t recommend anyone eat anything in the wild unless they are 100% certain of what it is.”

      Pretty sound advice.

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