Tall, Dramatic Actaea

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.

Actaea ramosa (bugbane) flower buds
Actaea ramosa (bugbane) flower buds

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.

Actaea racemosa (bugbane) flower buds with conifer
Actaea racemosa (bugbane) flower buds with conifer

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.

Actaea racemosa flowering
Actaea racemosa flowering

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 (bugbane) flower stars
Actaea racemosa (bugbane) flower stars

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.

Actaea (bugbane) leaf with purple edge
Actaea (bugbane) leaf with purple edge

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.

29 thoughts on “Tall, Dramatic Actaea”

    1. Gittan, I added more Actaea to my garden this year, and I’m very glad now that fall is here. The tall flowers really liven up the garden as they wave in the wind, and the scent is sweet.

    1. Sunita, the slower spikes with the thick, glossy, purple buds look interesting before the flower opens.

      Katarina, they really stand out in the garden, because they hold their flowers so high, and the long, slender flowers are a different shape than most of the other flowers blooming now.

      Noelle, it’s nice to have tall plants that don’t need any staking. We have had some very strong winds for the last few days, and the stems are still vertical, with no extra support.

      Wiseacre, I find this genus hard to sort out, and not just because they changed the Genus name, grouping them with a very different looking group of plants. I really can’t tell the difference between the species ramosa and racemosa. I wonder if they will eventually be synonyms? Plus you see labels with ‘Atropurpurea group’, but under different species names. I’ve seen some labels where the same purple cultivar is classified as A. simplex, and some as ramosa or racemosa. I didn’t want to get any more of the A. simplex, since they bloom later. I know that the classification can change as we find out more about some plants, but I wish they didn’t. The main reason I like scientific names, is that they are usually much more precise,and you know what you are getting, but not necessarily in this case.

  1. I hate it when they change the names – I had it Bass Ackwards in my confusion. Guess my favorite nursery needs to catch up with the times in their catalog.

    Whatever the name they do make a great shade garden plant – all the more so when the gardens are winding down late in the season.

    1. Joanne, it is a little different, so it stands out among the other perennials. We’ve had another extra windy day, with wind gusts blowing smaller branches off the trees, but these tall perennials are surprisingly still upright.

  2. That’s an amazing plant, NC. I’d like to try it in my garden. You grow some unusual plants in your garden.
    We had strong winds today too, and then quite a severe thunderstorm. It sure feels like fall!

    1. Kerri, I’m starting to see more leaves on the ground over the last few days from the wind, and some plants are beginning their fall colours. It’s great to see some fresh flowers, like the Actaea. They have a number of wands to open still, too.

      Rebecca, mine are about 80 cm (2.5 ft) wide. I think they get up to 1 m (3 ft) in width. The A. ramosa and A. racemosa have a light texture to their leaves, with gaps between. It’s very sculptural.

  3. Beautiful pictures, I love the conifer backdrop. I have been eyeing a ‘Black Beauty Bugbane’ for awhile now, but haven’t picked out an appropriate spot for such a powerful addition. Do these plants take up a lot of space width-wise? :)

  4. What an absolutely gorgeous plant! I had no idea they got so tall. My little son is enchanted by flowers taller than him so he would just love these.

    I really like vertical accents in the garden and these seem to have that wow factor.

    1. The Garden Ms. S, the flowers on one of my Actaea plants tower over the top of my 2 m (6 ft) fence, so I have to look up, too. They do form an accent. I like having more than one group, since they lead the eye around the garden. My Hydrangea are starting to fade, so it’s nice to have a fresh white, along with the phlox.

    1. Rothschild Orchid, I’m delighted with the lovely fragrance of these particular ones too. There aren’t many scented flowers at this time of year. Although there is a definite smell of fall in the air, a combination of damp earth and leaves.

  5. NS, It’s a great plant and those flowering wands are pretty cool. I planted it last winter. It didn’t flower, I think it might need more acidic soil them C&L has…but I do like the foliage. gail

    1. Gail, it’s too bad that it didn’t flower for you, since it makes a good show in Autumn. My Actaea simplex doesn’t flower for me, since it needs a longer growing season, but the A. racemosa and A. ramosa are doing well.

      Meredith, there aren’t as many tall plants for the shade, so it’s good to find one with nice leaves and interesting flowers too.

  6. It’s too confusing to have names change, I think! However I have Actaea racemosa in my backyard for the first time. It’s trying to bloom right now… do they always bloom so late in the season? Mine probably gets more shade than it likes. It’s “leaning forward.” We’ll watch it and see what happens next year. What an interesting and informative post. You have a nice array of these beautiful plants! :-)

    1. Shady Gardener, these are the last perennials to open their flowers in my garden. Perhaps they might bloom a little earlier in some zones that get an earlier start in the year, with a longer growing season, but they are a last hurrah for the gardening season. My A. simplex grows a little towards the light, but the A. racemosa doesn’t. I’ve been pleased that the plants are upright in some very shady conditions (although some of the flower tops have a rakish curve). I have some plants that get an hour of direct light and some 2 hours of sun, and they have bloomed well.

      I like the names to remain the same, too. It makes it easier to know exactly what you are getting.

  7. Hi NS, I only recently discovered bugbane, when I found one growing in one of my gardens in the back yard, mixed in with some of my astilbe. I didn’t plant it, intentionally…so either it was mislabeled, or was just a tiny sprout in an astilbe plant pot, or, maybe a bird brought it by? Either way, I was quite impressed with it, and am still enjoying it as it continues to open each of its buds. I don’t remember ever seeing or hearing of it prior to this…but suddenly I’ve been seeing it everywhere! I didn’t realize the name had been changed until Monica, the Garden Fairy, informed me. How can people keep up with these changes, unless they are botanists? Anyway, as usual, your post is very informative with great photography!

    1. Jan, how lucky to have one volunteer in your garden, and then to be blooming. I could see the leaves hiding out when tiny in an astilbe pot, since there is a bit of a resemblance in the foliage. It is native to the Eastern United States, so perhaps the birds were spreading an appreciated plant for a change. Enjoy your fall garden.

  8. I love this plant too! I have the cultivar “Hillside Black Beauty” and it wows me right through the season. It blooms here in late August (zone 5) and the flowers smell like grape popsicles. Pollinators go crazy for it. The dark foliage looks good with everything and I love the striking seed heads later in the season too. An all around great garden plant for cold climates. Here I have it in full sun where it is doing fine. I also have the native species Actaea racemosa which blooms quite a bit earlier in the season. Thanks for sharing! I’m enjoying your blog.

    1. Ellen, the dark leaves of Hillside Black Beauty really stand out. I debated about getting some for a garden area with purple foliage. Now you have me intrigued with your description of the flower scent. Some of the Actaea bloom too late for my zone, which is why I like the earlier blooming A. racemosa. I might try a plant to see it’s bloom time. The foliage of Actaea is much nicer than Aruncus, which is my other standby for a tall shade perennial.

  9. I have two Cimicfuga racemosa (Black Cohosh) They are supposed to grow to 4′ and produce white flowers in late summer. So far they have only grown to 1′ and 2′ and havn’t produced any flowers. I have pretty heavy shade and am wondering if that is the problem. I spend the summer in the mountains, but I don’t leave there until mid October so certainly they would have bloomed by that time. Any ideas?

    1. Val, most of my Cimicifuga grow in fairly shady areas, with the shadiest getting maybe an hour of direct light, and they all put up buds. The Cimicifuga simplex grow about 3 to 4 feet tall, and the Cimicifuga racemosa and C. ramosa grow 5 to 6 feet tall. The flower stalks of some of them were over my 6 foot fence. The C. simplex blooms too late here, and the buds always get cut by frost before they can open. The others bloom earlier in September here, but the end of their bloom time gets cut short by frost. With your longer growing season, I would think you would see blooming by October too, and you should be able to see their tall flower stalks forming before that. Do they get some direct light?

  10. NS if it isn’t the shade, what about soil ph. I have used lime in a lot of my garden and I think you said they like pine trees so maybe I am giving them the wrong food. Perhaps I should use my rhododendron fertilizer instead. Something is retarding their growth and I have two of these plants in two different locations with neither growing over a foot or producing flowers. Other than that, they look healthy.

    1. Val, I’m not sure of their pH requirements. The Cimicifuga are planted in 4 different locations in my garden, one group is under a pine, one under a maple, some at the edge of a willow, and some in a narrower garden between my house and fence. I hope that yours start growing for you, since there are fewer tall perennials for the shade, and these make a nice bridge between the shorter perennials and the taller shrubs and trees.

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