How to Grow and Care for Actaea (Cimicifuga)

Actaea racemosa (syn. cimicifuga racemosa), white flower, july

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Gardeners looking for some drama for their perennial shade gardens run up against hostas again and again. While some hostas do sport showy flowers, blossoms aren’t the focal point of the hosta, and hostas don’t flower as late in the season as the Actaea does. Actaea plants are as slow to establish in the garden as hostas, but they’re worth the wait.

In spite of its common name bugbane, the plant formerly known as Cimicifuga acts as both a host plant and a source of nectar for butterflies. In the spring, the spring azure butterfly and Appalachian blue butterfly lay their eggs on bugbane foliage. In late summer and fall, the flower panicles are a favorite of red admiral butterflies.

Get to Know Bugbane Plants

Bugbane is member of the Ranunculaceae, or buttercup family. Commonly accepted genus names now include both Cimicifuga and Actaea. Like many ornamental plants, Actaea is saddled with some unfortunate common names. You may see this plant listed as bugbane, bugwort, cohosh, or snakeroot. In some circles, it's also referred to as fairy candles. Bugbane plants range from two to four feet in height, but the flower spikes can grow up to seven feet in established clumps. Plants are smaller and shorter in sunny areas.

Your bugbane plants will thrive in partial to full shade in growing zones 3 to 7. The gentle rays of the morning sun are ideal, providing plants with enough energy to produce prolific blooms, without scorching the vulnerable dark foliage. Most bugbane varieties bloom from late summer through early fall, although ‘Misty Blue’ blooms in the spring.

Bugbane plants, especially the varieties with dark foliage, may sit unnoticed in the shade garden for much of the summer. Plants grow in a loosely formed clump, and the foliage resembles that of the Japanese maple, featuring serrated leaflets. Beginning in summer and continuing through fall, the plants send up stems bearing bottlebrush-shaped flowers that can be a foot long. What is unusual about these flowers? Look closely, they don't bear petals. The fuzzy appearance is due to the fact that the flower is composed entirely of stamens! Though the lightly fragrant flowers attract butterflies, they aren’t appealing to rabbits or deer.

Planting Tips

Bugbane plants need shade, but they don’t like dry shade, so don’t place them under mature trees where they will have to compete for moisture.

You can plant bugbanes in the spring or fall. Early fall plantings are desirable in hot summer areas.

If planting bare root bugbanes, place the crown an inch under the soil’s surface to ease transplant shock. Gardeners prefer potted plants over bare root where available. There are many reports of bare root plants not taking hold in their new digs. 

Bugbane plants like rich soil amended with ample amounts of leaf mold, rotted manure, or compost.

Care and Maintenance

Bugbane plants are slow to establish, so don’t despair if your new plants don’t bloom for the first season or two.

If you are adding organic matter to the soil each season, you won’t need to add additional fertilizer.

Don’t let bugbane plants dry out during the growing season. While they don’t like boggy conditions, they need about an inch of water each week. Drought-stressed plants are quick to wilt, and plants grown in dry conditions will come back smaller in subsequent seasons. 

If desired, divide plants in the fall. Take large divisions, turning a mature clump into two or three plants, as this will help the new plants establish quickly.

Garden Design

If you want to continue the butterfly shade garden theme, plant cimicifuga beside the red cardinal flower. For a knockout foliage combination, plant the deep purple leafed ‘Hillside Black Beauty’ cimicifuga alongside the chartreuse foliage of ‘Gold Heart’ bleeding heart. Other good companion plants include columbine, Solomon’s Seal, and t​oad lilies. 

Varieties to Try

  • Brunette: Dark purple foliage and white flowers, more sun tolerant than Hillside Black Beauty
  • Hillside black beauty: Stems up to 7 feet bear white flowers that seem to hover above dark purple foliage
  • James compton: Dark foliage and white flowers on a three foot plant for the middle or front of the border
  • Misty blue: Bluish-green foliage; white flowers eventually give way to red berries
  • Pink spike: Bronze foliage and pink bottlebrush flowers