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Actaea, or Cimicifuga, an Old Favorite With a New Name

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Actaea, or Cimicifuga, an Old Favorite With a New Name

Cimicifuga is a slow-growing, but tough perennial plant for the shade garden

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Gardeners looking for some drama for their perennial shade gardens run up against hostas again and again. While some hostas do sport showy flowers, blossoms aren’t the focal point of the hosta, and hostas don’t flower as late in the season as the Actaea does. Actaea plants are as slow to establish in the garden as hostas, but they’re worth the wait.

In spite of its common name bugbane, the plant formerly known as Cimicifuga acts as both a host plant and a source of nectar for butterflies. In the spring, the spring azure butterfly and Appalachian blue butterfly lay their eggs on bugbane foliage. In late summer and fall, the flower panicles are a favorite of red admiral butterflies.

Latin Name:

Member of the Ranunculaceae, or buttercup family. Commonly accepted genus names now include both Cimicifuga and Actaea.

Common Names:

Like many ornamental plants, Actaea is saddled with some unfortunate common names. You may see this plant listed as bugbane, bugwort, cohosh, or snakeroot. In some circles it's also referred to as fairy candles.

Zone:

3-7

Size:

Bugbane plants range from two to four feet in height, but the flower spikes can grow up to seven feet in established clumps. Plants are smaller and shorter in sunny areas.

Exposure:

Partial to full shade

Bloom Period:

Most bugbane varieties bloom from late summer through early fall, although ‘Misty Blue’ blooms in the spring.

Description:

Bugbane plants, especially the varieties with dark foliage, may sit unnoticed in the shade garden for much of the summer. Plants grow in a loosely formed clump, and the foliage resembles that of the Japanese maple, featuring serrated leaflets. Beginning in summer and continuing through fall, the plants send up stems bearing bottlebrush shaped flowers that can be a foot long. Though the lightly fragrant flowers attract butterflies, they aren’t appealing to rabbits or deer.

Planting:

  • Bugbane plants need shade, but they don’t like dry shade, so don’t place them under mature trees where they will have to compete for moisture.
  • You can plant bugbanes in the spring or fall.
  • If planting bare root bugbanes, place the crown an inch under the soil’s surface to ease transplant shock.
  • Bugbanes like rich soil amended with ample amounts of leaf mold, rotted manure, or compost.

Maintenance:

  • Bugbane plants are slow to establish, so don’t despair if your new plants don’t bloom for the first season or two.
  • If you are adding organic matter to the soil each season, you won’t need to add additional fertilizer.
  • Don’t let bugbane plants dry out during the growing season. While they don’t like boggy conditions, they need about an inch of water each week. Drought stressed plants are quick to wilt.
  • If desired, divide plants in the fall. Take large divisions, turning a mature clump into two or three plants, as this will help the new plants establish quickly.

Design Tips:

If you want to continue the butterfly shade garden theme, plant cimicifuga beside the red cardinal flower. For a knockout foliage combination, plant the deep purple leafed ‘Hillside Black Beauty’ cimicifuga alongside the chartreuse foliage of ‘Gold Heart’ bleeding heart. Other good companion plants include:

Varieties:

  • Brunette: Dark purple foliage and white flowers, more sun tolerant than Hillside Black Beauty
  • Hillside Black Beauty: Stems up to 7 feet bear white flowers that seem to hover above dark purple foliage
  • James Compton: Dark foliage and white flowers on a three foot plant for the middle or front of the border
  • Misty Blue: Bluish-green foliage; white flowers eventually give way to red berries
  • Pink Spike: Bronze foliage and pink bottlebrush flowers
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