Actaea (bugbane) make such graceful spires in the fall garden. With their over 2 m (6 ft) height, they are bold looking plants for the shade garden. While many perennials are past their prime in September, Actaea are just starting to flower, giving the gardener new blooms to anticipate and enjoy. I have several groupings around my garden, but they are tall and showy enough to be planted singly, too.
The Actaea, along with the Phlox paniculata and Hydrangea paniculata are the boldest flowers in my garden in fall. The Actaea flowers rise above the other plants, leading your eye upwards. They help make a link to trees or taller shrubs.
In this photo you can see one horizontal wand with its buds still mostly closed, a mixture of white and pink. The buds are pretty in their own right. When tightly closed, they are a deep purple on the exterior. Then they open partially to show dark pink on the outside and a white interior.
The flower buds gradually open more to reveal the fluffy interior. Their late flowering is a boon and a drawback in zone 3. While I appreciate being able to look forward to new blooms, they will deteriorate when the frost comes. In Edmonton that means that the flowering time can be very short some years, if we have an early frost. Still, it is worthwhile to plant some at the back of your shade garden. For one thing, the tall foliage makes a great backdrop for the other perennials. Plus, the fluffy flower racemes arching at head height are beautiful, even if they can be short lived in a short growing season.
The open flower in the picture above glows as the early evening light shines under the tree branches and over the fence. The foliage of the bugbane is in shade because of the fence, but the 2 m (6 ft) tall flower wands manage to catch the evening rays. Despite their height and the way they sway gently in the wind, the blooms keep upright and don’t need staking. The lower flower stems go straight up, and then the topmost flower racemes arch. The smaller side blooms tend to be straighter.
Here is a closeup of a smaller flower wand that is fully open. They appear white from a distance, but are the palest pink when viewed up close. The longest ones are 30 cm (1 ft) tall, while the smallest side clusters are 12 cm (5 in) tall.
Atropurpurea has the sweetest perfume. When they are fully open, I enjoy walking near the blooms to inhale the fragrance. One of my largest Actaea is in a bed near my back door, so I can smell the scent as I go in and out. It doesn’t drift a long way, but the scent is very sweet up close.
The nomenclature for these plants can be confusing. They used to be in the genus Cimicifuga and then they were grouped in the genus Actaea. That in itself isn’t too bad, but the species on the tags can be puzzling. I purchased mine as C. racemosa ‘Atropurpurea’ and C. ramosa. However, Atropurpurea now seem to be named Actaea simplex ‘Atropurpurea Group’. I’m not sure why the species name is recategorized too. To add to the confusion, I have some different looking bugbane purchased as Cimicifuga simplex, but the leaves don’t grow in layers like these and the flowers bloom later. This makes it difficult when you want to purchase a particular cultivar. You might find these still labelled under the old genus name of Cimicifuga, or you might find them labelled Actaea racemosa ‘Atropurpurea’, but I haven’t seen any around here labelled Actaea simplex Atropurpurea Group.
There is room at the base of these plants for a shade groundcover. I plant Campanula (bellflowers) with blue flowers, lily of the valley, Heuchera (coral bells), or Tiarella (foamflower) underneath. It’s easy to layer spring bulbs around the base, since they bloom before the Actaea grows tall, and the Actaea will soon cover up the decaying bulb foliage as it grows. I like to plant Muscari (grape hyacinths) around them, as it doesn’t mind the part shade location.
If you are searching for a bold looking shade plant with autumn flowers, then Actea is a good choice. The tall blooms are like exclamation marks in the garden, fragrant punctuation for your shady areas.