Actaea (Cimicifuga) Plant Profile

Showy Option for Shade Gardens

Actaea racemosa with white flowers in July.

Mark Bolton/Getty Images

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 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 (at which point so many flowers have retired for another year), know that the Actaea blooms later in the year than Hosta does. Actaea plants are as slow to establish in the garden as hostas, but they are worth the wait.

Botanical Name Actaea
Common Names  Bugbane, bugwort, cohosh, snakeroot
Plant Type Herbaceous flowering perennial
Mature Size 2 to 4 feet in height without flowers (7 feet with flowers)
Sun Exposure Partial shade to full shade
Soil Type Rich, with good drainage
Soil pH Roughly neutral (7)
Bloom Time Late summer through early fall
Flower Color White (most commonly)
Hardiness Zones 3 to 7
Native Area North America

How to Grow Actaea Plants

Actaea plants need shade, but they do not like dry shade, so do not 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. 

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

Actaea plants are slow to establish, so do not despair if your new plants do not bloom for the first season or two.

Do not let Actaea plants dry out during the growing season. While they do not 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.

Actaea 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 lacy Japanese maple (Acer palmatum dissectum), 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 the flowers is that they do not 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 are not appealing to rabbits or deer.

Light

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. 

Soil

A rich soil amended with ample amounts of leaf mold, rotted manure, or compost is best.

Water

Actaea has average water needs.

Fertilizer

If you are adding organic matter to the soil each season, you will not need to add additional fertilizer.

Family Relations, Wildlife Attracted to Actaea Plants

Bugbane is a 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 is also referred to as fairy candles. Bugbane is related to both red baneberry (Actaea rubra) and white baneberry (Actaea pachypoda).

In spite of its common name of "bugbane," the plant 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.

Design Tips

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)

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 tall, with 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; the earliest-blooming Actaea (it blooms in the spring)
  • 'Pink Spike': Bronze foliage and pink bottlebrush flowers