Actaea, especially the varieties with dark foliage, may sit unnoticed in the shade garden for much of the summer. Also known as bugbanes, these slow-growing plants grow in a loosely formed clump with serrated leaflets resembling those of the lacy Japanese maple (Acer palmatum dissectum). Beginning in summer and continuing through fall, the plants send up stems bearing bottlebrush-shaped flowers that can be a foot long. The flowers do not have petals, the fuzzy appearance is because the flower is composed entirely of stamens. While the lightly fragrant flowers attract butterflies, they are not appealing to rabbits or deer. The plants are non-invasive.
Actaea produces white, red, or purplish-black berries on thick, red stalks. The black dot on the white berries leads to the common name, Doll's Eye. All parts of this plant are toxic to humans and pets, with the berries and roots being the most hazardous.
|Common Names||Bugbane, white cohosh, snakeberry, doll's-eyes|
|Plant Type||Herbaceous, perennial|
|Mature Size||2-4 ft. tall (7 ft. tall with flowers)|
|Sun Exposure||Partial, shade|
|Bloom Time||Summer, fall|
|Flower Color||White, lavender|
|USDA Hardiness Zones||4-8 (USDA)|
|Native Area||North America|
|Toxicity||Toxic to humans and pets|
Actaea plants need shade, but they do not 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 one 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.
Actaea prefers partial to full shade and may naturalize in such areas. Plants grown in sunny areas tend to stay smaller. The gentle rays of the morning sun are ideal, providing plants with enough energy to produce prolific blooms without scorching the vulnerable dark foliage.
A rich soil amended with ample amounts of leaf mold, rotted manure, or compost is best.
Do not let Actaea plants dry out during the growing season. While they do not like boggy conditions, they need about one 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.
Temperature and Humidity
Bugbane prefers moderate temperatures; areas of high heat will slow its growth, and the heat of the sun can scorch the foliage. Keep the plant in a cooler, shaded area. When planted in typical growing zones, this plant isn't picky about humidity.
If you are adding organic matter to the soil each season, you will not need to add additional fertilizer.
Types of Actaea
- 'Brunette': Dark purple foliage and white flowers, more sun tolerant than 'Hillside Black Beauty'
- 'Hillside Black Beauty': Stems up to 7 feet tall, with white flowers that seem to hover above dark purple foliage
- 'James Compton': Dark foliage and white flowers on a 3-foot plant for the middle or front of the border
- 'Misty Blue': Bluish-green foliage; white flowers eventually give way to red berries; the earliest spring bloomer
- 'Pink Spike': Bronze foliage and pink bottlebrush flowers
This plant doesn't need much pruning. Deadhead the tips when they begin to die back. In the fall, cut the plant down to the ground. It will pop up again with the spring thaw.
Actaea can be grown from seeds or division. If you choose division, 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. Actaea can be propagated through several methods. Here’s how:
- In the fall, dig up the entire clump.
- Divide your plant into sections using a sharp, sterile instrument. Ensure each clump has roots and foliage.
- Pot each new section in a well-draining container and return one to the original spot.
- Place pots in a shady location and water regularly. Ensure the plants do not dry out or get waterlogged.
How to Grow Actaea From Seed
Growing this plant from seed is a laborious process, but it can be done.
- Start by keeping the seeds at a constant temperature of about 60 degrees Fahrenheit for two months.
- Then cold-stratify the seeds by placing them in the refrigerator for another two months.
- At the end of that period, sow the seeds in small containers indoors.
- Keep them lightly watered, and placed the container in a warm area.
- Keep in mind it can take up to a year for the seeds to germinate.
Bugbane needs the cold winter to grow well in the spring. Younger plants might benefit from a layer of mulch during the coldest part of the season.
Common Pests and Plant Diseases
Actaea is often called "bugbane" because it is the bane of bugs—they don't go near this plant. Root rot is possible if the plant is sitting in soil that holds onto water. This can be remedied by working pumice into the soil occasionally.
If you encounter something that looks like orange spots on the leaves, it could be rust spots. This is actually a type of fungus, and there are many ways to treat it including neem oil, baking soda, or commercial fungicide. To prevent rust spots, make sure to use drip irrigation, which will help reduce the risk of overwatering.
How to Get Actaea to Bloom
Actaea plants are slow to establish, so do not despair if your new plants do not bloom for the first season or two. Ensure they have good water, as they don't like to bloom during drought. These plants produce small white, creamy blossoms. Expect summer blooms to continue through the fall. Deadhead the flowers when the blooming period ends.
What are good companion plants for Actaea?
If you want to continue the butterfly shade garden theme, plant Actaea beside the cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis). For a knockout foliage combination, plant the deep-purple-leafed ‘Hillside Black Beauty’ cultivar alongside the chartreuse foliage of ‘Gold Heart’ bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis 'Gold Heart'). Other good companion plants include columbine (Aquilegia), Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum), and toad lilies (Tricyrtus).
What is the difference between Actaea and hostas?
Gardeners looking for some drama for their perennial shade gardens often opt for hostas. While some hostas do sport showy flowers, blossoms are not the focal point of the hosta. Actaea, by contrast, offers not only nice foliage but also pretty flowers. And if you are looking for something to flower late in the season, Actaea blooms later in the year than hosta. Actaea plants are as slow to establish in the garden as hostas, but they are worth the wait.
How long can bugbane live?
When planted in an ideal location, Actaea can live for a decade or more.