Actaea (syn. Cimicifuga): Bugbane

In spring, while pastel colored ephemerals dominate gardens around the city, Actaeas are beginning to emerge from dormancy. Varieties with jet black foliage provide excellent color contrast for other early blooming shade beauties.

In May and June, many gardens have reached their peak of bloom, while Acteas have filled in with lacy foliage in the background. Then in July, when it is becoming difficult to find flowers in shady areas, long spikes of fragrant white flowers which glow shockingly bright and seem to float in midair. The return of cool weather brings drying seed heads, their spiky outline still visible.

Black foliaged varieties are even darker when grown in full sun (with adequate water). Into the fall their foliage, black, and reliable as ever, lends beauty to late season interest plants such as Fuchsias, Aconitum, and grasses.

Green foliage varieties are less tolerant of hot sun, but continue to add height and texture to shade gardens until November. They combine well with hostas, calla lilies and black mondo grass.

Did you know? Bugbanes have recently been reclassified from Cimicifuga to Actaea. However they have been classified, they have been admired for many decades. Native Americans used Actaea racemosa (Black Cohosh) for snake bites, and it continues to be used in modern herbal medicine for a variety of ailments.

A few varieties you can find at Portland Nursery:

Actaea racemosa Black Cohosh

White flower spikes July-August, grows 5-7’ tall by 24” wide. Zones 3-8.

Actaea racemosa ‘Atropurpurea’

Of the purple leaf cultivars, this is the least purple (more like bronze) and the tallest at 5-6′.

Actaea racemosa ‘Brunette’

Darker foliage than ‘Atropurpurea’ but not as dark as ‘Hillside Black Beauty.’It still provides stunning foliage contrast. Occasional pink flowers instead of the usual white. 4-6’ tall.

Actaea simplex ‘Hillside Black Beauty’

The darkest-leaf and shortest selection of A. racemosa, one plant is a feature with glowing white blooms atop black leaves. Grows 3-5’ tall.

Actaea simplex ‘Black Negligee’ – Black Bugbane

Selections of A. spicata have more pleasantly fragrant flowers. Aside from fragrance, ‘Black Negligée’ is very similar to ‘Hillside Black Beauty.’ Grows 4-5’ tall.

Actaea simplex ‘Pink Spike’

A newer variety with fragrant pink flowers in late summer to early fall. Stunning dark foliage contrasts well with flower spikes and other plants in the garden. Grows 3-5′ tall 24″ wide in part sun. Hardy to zone 4.

Actaea matsumurae ‘White Pearl’

Very free flowering green leafed white flowered selection. Decorative (but very poisonous) black berries follow the flowers. A. simplex ‘White Pearl’ was recently reclassifed as A. matsumurae ‘White Pearl’.

Actaea elata ‘Western Bugbane’

Vigorous and more tolerant of drought than other species, green leaf, white flower, grows 3-7’ tall and 3’ wide. See our feature on this native Actaea

Actaea pachypoda ‘Doll’s Eyes’ (Bloom with berries shown in inset)

Actaea pachypoda ‘Doll’s Eyes’

Bizarre white berries with one black dot that resemble eyeballs hang on the flowering stems from summer through fall and into winter. Flowers are in compact balls rather than the showier long spikes of other species. Grows 30” tall and wide.

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