Perhaps I should have saved this plant for the end of October because it is really rather creepy. The common name of doll’s eyes sums it up quite well, especially if, like me, you find dolls unsettling. For most of the year Actaea pachypoda is not terribly exciting. It is a hardy, herbaceous plant with deeply divided leaves often compared with astilbes and the terminal clusters of flowers are without petals or nectar and are tufty rosettes of cream stamens about 1cm across. Recently actaea and cimicifuga have been merged but if you know what the ‘old’ cimicifuga look like you can imagine the flowers. They are not insignificant but they, alone, would not make this a decent garden plant.
But after they fade they are followed by ‘berries’ that start green but mature white. It is the pedicels (individual flower stems) that make the plant interesting as they turn red when the berries ripen. Perhaps this is to attract birds to eat the berries which they would otherwise ignore, though it would be easier to do what its cousin does (Actaea rubra) and produce red berries! Whatever the reason, the result is a striking autumn display that remains well into autumn.
Actaea pachypoda (pachy – poda means ‘thick foot’ because of the red pedicels) is a plant of North American woodland in the east and, in the garden it needs shade and a moist, acid soil. Having said that, my young plant is in a partially shaded bed which was improved to the best of my ability before planting and is rather wet in winter and has been dry this summer. From a 9cm pot when planted last spring it has grown into a youngster with three stems and two flower clusters 60cm high this year so I am confident it has settled in. The leaves are usually yellow in autumn but they are all crisp this year. It will tolerate quite deep shade once established.
It is not easy to tell but this is related to buttercups, in the Ranunculaceae but like so many of them, it is poisonous so is not a logical choice for gardens with children as the beadlike berries may be tempting.