Thursday, September 28, 2017

A Fragrant Fall Beauty for Part-Shade/Shade

You can smell the soft white flowers long before they come into view. The perfume is commanding. It summons you to come closer. What is that marvellous scent?

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 seems 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 a 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 is 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.

Actaea racemosa is native to eastern North America where it is found in moist woodlands. The roots of the plant have a long history of medicinal use by Native Americans. The common name 'Cohosh' is Algonquin.

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 needs moist conditions first and foremost. My garden has lots of dry shade, but there is a small area that is over top 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 likes rich soil that has been amended with compost or leaf mold.

Be patient. Actaea is slow to establish and may take a few years to bloom.

On the upside, these are long-lived perennials. Like Peonies, Actaea seldom needs to be divided. If you want to try to divide or move them, do it in the spring. Unfortunately, the plant will take quite some time to recover.

There is good news for gardeners struggling with deer. Actaea is 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.

Companion Plants

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' have 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.

Japanese Painted Fern, Athyrium 'Silver Falls' 

Ferns also make excellent companion plants.

Japanese Anemone

There are also a number of perennials that bloom around the same time. Japanese Anemones, Phlox and Toad Lilies are just a few examples.

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'

I love the way Actaea simplex 'James Compton' fills the garden with perfume each autumn, but even if it never bloomed, the attractive foliage makes Actaea a perennial well worth growing.

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  1. Another one that I've never seen, Jennifer (Actaea).
    It is really beautiful, and the fact that it is fragrant too, makes it even nicer!
    Thank you for sharing, my friend, and have a wonderful weekend.

  2. I don't have one of these in my own garden, but we do have one in the garden where I volunteer. Next time, I will have to take a whiff of its fragrance!

  3. I never knew of Snakeroot until we moved to the west coast. My next door neighbour on the one side (the home where we just moved from) had several planted against her fence. Each time I'd come out from that side of the house, the fragrance was unmistakeable and always caused me to linger. This is a plant I may well add to our new tiny yard next year. We have a wet area in the back that doesn't receive much sun either -- might be just the ticket.

  4. Actea is in bloom now in the garden, along with chocolate boneset. Two great fall dependables. Your photos are stunning. BTW, Actea will reseed, sometimes not the same color as mama, so keep an eye out for that Jennifer.

    1. Thank you for the words of caution Bren. I haven’t noticed any seedlings of the Actea....yet. Conditions in my garden are generallly on the dry side, so perhaps that has discouraged reseeding, Your reminder about the chocolate boneset comes at the perfect time. I am away from home looking after my ailing mother. I noticed the boneset was going to seed as I was leaving. Maybe I can persuade my husband to go out and cut it down.


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