The fragrance is as pungent as that of an oriental lily, but its lighter, without that dense mix of spices. Instead it's a sweet blend of honey and jasmine with just a hint of vanilla.
The common names for the plant scenting the air are anything but glamorous: Bugbane, Bugwort, Cohosh and Snakeroot. None of these seem to suit the tall, rather elegant flowers or the attractive fern-like foliage.
Even the Latin name attached to this plant for hundreds of years fails to describe it properly. A British plant hunter named it 'Cimicifuga racemosa' and sent it back to England. Modern science now shows that name to be invalid. The plant's DNA proves it is actually member of the large Ranunculaceae family. So its proper name is 'Actaea'. This change in names is almost 20 years old, but old habits die hard, and the plant continues to be referred to by its former name 'Cimicifuga'.
Depending on the type of Actaea, the blooms don't appear until well into the summer or early fall. The flowers have no petals. Instead there are a long stamen surrounded by starburst clusters of white stigma. The common name 'Bugbane' suggests that insects dislike the flower's strong scent, but I have noticed that ants in particular are frequent visitors.
The attractive fern-like foliage that can be green, dark chocolate or even a deep eggplant color depending on the cultivar.
Cimicifuga racemosa has creamy white flowers and green fern-like foliage. It is one of the earliest Actaea to bloom (mid-summer). Part-shade. Height:120-150 cm (47-59 inches), Spread: 60-75 cm (23-29 inches). USDA zones: 3-9.
Though Actaea racemosa is a native plant, most of the cultivars you'll find at your local nursery have been breed from Actaea simplex which is found in Japan and eastern Russia. It is the desirable dark leaves of the Asian Actaea that have attracted the attention of plant breeders.
A green leafed cultivar at Lost Horizon's Nursery.
In behind the bench you can see the tall spires of an Actaea. Lost Horizons Nursery.
Lost Horizons Nursery.
Actaea 'James Compton' in my garden.
How to Grow Actaea
Actaea need moist conditions first and foremost. My garden has lots of dry shade, but there is a small area that is overtop of our septic bed. Every time I do a wash or someone takes a shower that area of the garden is flushed with a generous amount of water.
In August we were away for a weekend. On our return, I found my Actaea looking miserable and wilted. Without its regular supply of water, the leaves had become scorched by the sun. I got out the garden hose and I could almost see the Actaea sigh in relief.
Dark leafed cultivars, like the one I have in my garden, need bright shade rather than full shade for good leaf color. ("Bright shade" in my garden is filtered morning sunlight). Green-leafed varieties are better for more shaded locations.
Actaea like like rich soil that has been amened with compost or leaf mold.
Be patient. Actaea are slow to establish and may take a few years to bloom.
On the upside, these are long-lived perennials. Like Peonies, Actaea seldom need to be divided. If you want to try to divide or move them, do it in the spring. Unfortuneately the plant will take quite some time to recover.
There is good news for gardeners struggling with deer. Actaea are deer resistant.
Cultivars to watch for
Actaea simplex 'White Pearl' has lacy green foliage and creamy white flowers. Part-shade or shade. Height: 90-120 cm (35-47 inches), Spread: 60-75 cm (23-29 inches). USDA zones: 3-9.
Actaea simplex 'James Compton' has white flowers tinged with pink and dark, purplish-black foliage. Part-shade. Height: 90-120 cm (35-47 inches), Spread: 60-75 cm (23-29 inches). USDA zones: 3-9.
Actaea simplex 'Black Negligee' is a sexy mix of white flowers tinged with pink and dark black foliage. Bright shade brings out the best color this cultivar's foliage. Height:120-150 cm (47-59 inches), Spread: 60-75 cm (23-29 inches). USDA zones: 3-9.
Actaea simplex 'Hillside Black Beauty' white flowers and has foliage that is a mix of deep purple and black. Height: 150-180 cm (59-70 inches), Spread: 60-75 cm (23-29 inches). USDA zones: 3-9.
Actaea simplex 'Brunette' has pale pink flowers and foliage that is a mix of purplish and black tones. Part-shade. 150-180 cm (59-70 inches), Spread: 60-75 cm (23-29 inches). USDA zones: 3-9.
Any plant that likes moist, part-shade or shade can be planted alongside an Actaea.
Early in the spring, perennials like primroses and Tiarella provide blooms that would play off the lacy foliage of an Actaea nicely.
Tiarella 'Sugar and Spice' has pink buds that open into fragrant white flowers that bloom in the early spring. This plant likes moist conditions and sandy or clay soil. Part-shade to full shade. Height: 20-35 cm (8-14 inches), Spread: 25-30 cm (10-12 inches). USDA zones: 4-9.
There are also a number of perennials that bloom around the same time. Japanese Anemones, Phlox and Toad Lilies are just a few examples.
Japanese Painted Fern, Athyrium 'Silver Falls'
Ferns also make excellent companion plants.
Toad lily, Tricyrtis hirta has star-shaped flowers on arching stems. The flowers are tiny so Toad lilies are best planted at the front of a flowerbed where they can be appreciated up close. This plant likes the same moist conditions. Part-shade to full shade. Height: 60-90 cm (23-35 inches), Spread: 45-60 cm (18-23 inches). USDA zones: 4-9.
In my garden, Actaea 'James Compton' is surrounded by a number of late bloomers. Hydrangea 'Little Lime' (Sun) is to one side. (Note: The hydrangea is just that little bit further out from under the Black Walnut tree and gets a bit more sun. It too loves the moist conditions).
Tall Boneset, Eupatorium altissimum
Boneset, Eupatorium altissimum (Full sun or light shade) forms a big, white cloud in the background. Phlox 'Creme de Menthe' (Sun or part shade) also flowers in September. (If you can't find this cultivar, 'Norah Leigh' is very similar.)
Phlox 'Creme de Menthe'