The tall flower wands of Actaea are very dramatic as they open in the fall garden. They rise above the other plants and look very fresh as many other perennials are going into decline. Actaea (used to be Cimicifuga) (bugbane) are a great solution if you need a tall plant for a shady border. I have four groups of these around the garden, and the showy flowers at eye height or above add rhythm and beauty to the garden.
These perennials used to be classified as the genus Cimicifuga, but now they are grouped with the other short Actaea. Beyond the genus change, I find the classifications a little confusing, as many of the cultivars such as ‘Atropurpurea’ are listed under different species. Also, A. ramosa seems very similar to A. racemosa.
The flower wands of these tall Actaea ramosa are long and thin, with many buds. The initial buds have a purple colour, and are attractive before they even open. In my zone 3 garden, these flamboyant perennials start flowering towards the end of September. I have some that flower with only an hour or so of direct sun a day.
Here are the buds of Actaea racemosa. These plants are over 2 metres (6 ft) tall, so I was shooting up as I took the photo, and they are displayed against the green conifer background.
The open Actaea racemosa flower wand is whipping around in the wind. Because it is so tall, it was swaying a metre (3 ft) to either side. That little guy hung on to the tip the whole time. You can see as they open, that the flowers are fluffy white. The central stalk has opened first, and the side wands are still in the bud stage. Although they are tall, the stems don’t need staking. Even after swaying in the wind, the 2 m (6ft) stems are upright, although the flowers on top can have a natural curve.
Actaea racemosa has a sweet scent. Some Actaea have an unpleasant smell, so I was pleased when this one bloomed. The pleasant scent actually carries for a few metres, even from just one bloom. In the above closeup, you can see how they form starry clusters on the ends of the wand. The long, thin flower clusters add emphasis above the foliage, like exclamations marks in the garden.
The foliage of these forms of bugbane makes an attractive backdrop for other perennials. The leaves have a purple tinge to the edges. There are other varieties that have an even stronger all over purple colour to the leaves. I especially like how the leaves come out in layers. It reminds me of the cloud pruning of an evergreen. The central stalk has a distinct purple colour too.
Bugbanes like moisture, but in the shade they seem to do fine. I would be careful planting it in sun, as I had one in a pot waiting to be planted that dried out very quickly, with the leaves turning crispy.
I have some Actaea simplex that are also tall, but the plants have a different form, and they bloom later. A. simplex bloom too late for zone 3, as the frost gets them before the flower wands open.
Actaea are an excellent plant for the back of the shade garden. They have good looking leaves, a dramatic form, and eye catching towers of flowers in the fall. As most perennials grow tired and start to fade back, these plants will put on a great final show. You can read more about Actaea and see more photos.