Another Blooming Actaea Update

Actaea racemosa July 2011 Minnesota

It is mid-July and the Actaea (Cimicifuga) Racemosa are blooming. The Purpurea highlighted last September and November won’t start blooming for a while yet. The Actaea pictured above has a dried flowhead from last year hanging amidst this season’s bottlebrushes of blooms and buds.

Most of the Actaea’s flower stalks fall to the ground when winter comes. Those that don’t, add interest standing above the snow.  At four-to-six feet off the ground, even the 80 inches of snow we had this last year didn’t bury them.

Below is an image of one of the Purpurea’s dried blooms taken in early May.

Dried Actaea Purpurea blossom May 2011 Minnesota

Actea Update

Actea in bloomActea - Fall Colors

My September blog focused on my favorite Actaea (formerly known as Cimicifuga), A. Racemosa purpurea. Since we’ve had such a wonderfully long Fall, I’ve had time to take more pictures between fall chores.

This is the same plant shown in the older blog. The first image was taken on the 28th of September, showing all the secondary blooms in their glory, while the primary blooms are going to seed. The second image was taken the morning of October 25th. It shows another feature that differentiates the A. Racemosa purpurea from the species (A. Racemosa) — fall color. (Some of the green leaves of the species, which flank the Purpurea, can be seen in the image.)

A Plant for All Seasons

Golden Carousel Barberry

In 2002, I planted some barberries (Berberis), in the shrub border in the north yard, the Korean species, a little Royal Burgundy and a Golden Carousel. This area receives nearly full sun in the Spring and Fall, but light shade during the Summer. The Korean was a quick grower, but started looking like a very bad haircut after only six years, so I took it out. The Royal Burgundy, very similar to a Crimson Pygmy, is a tough little dwarf, and makes for a nice companion to the star of the show, the Golden Carousel.

Like so many other plants when properly sited, the Golden Carousel has grown larger than advertised. This specimen is over five feet tall and five feet wide. It’s a care-free shrub that both deer and bugs ignore, but its changing colors and bright red fruit attract the eye in every season. Due to its size and sharp thorns, it is planted behind other plants on the border.

Golden Carousel is a Bailey Nurseries introduction, a cross between Korean and Japanese barberries. While at the time I was hoping to get one of its top-rated siblings, Ruby Carousel or Emerald Carousel, I could not be more pleased with this year-around beauty. I have it backed by Diablo Ninebark, also planted in ’02. The dark, large leaves of the Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius) provide striking contrast to this bright, small-leaved shrub through most of the season, but into the Fall the colors of the two plants begin to harmonize. Adding more interest in front of the barberries are the frosty, minty greens of Lamb’s Ears (Stachys byzantina) and a shimmering blanket of “Beacon Silver” Spotted Deadnettle (Lamium maculatum).

Golden Carousel Barberry - JulyGolden Carousel Barberry - SeptemberGolden Carousel Barberry - NovemberGolden Carousel Barberry - January

As the images above show (click for larger images), Golden Carousel changes throughout the year. It leafs out yellow, turning lime green in Summer, then to a dark green in early autumn, and takes on more oranges and reds until the green is gone in late Fall. Winter interest is provided by the thicket of red berries that hang like jewels from nearly every branch. A few branches get pruned off around the holidays to add some color and texture to the festive arrangements of pine boughs and other dried-flower arrangements for enjoyment indoors.

Actaea, Cimicifuga, Bugbane, Snakeroot?


Actaea, Actea, Cimicifuga racemosa atropurpurea, bloom

By any other name, Actaea is still very sweet

Looking for a large, stunning plant that provides fragrant blooms in the late summer and fall? An Actaea may be what you are seeking.

Actaea, formerly Cimicifuga, is a very large perennial—a couple of my mature plants are about four feet high and seven feet in diameter, with seven foot tall racemes. The species and cultivars make for an excellent large specimens or back-of-the-border plants. Their foliage is outstanding throughout the season.

The large leaves of mature plants offer more than beauty: They allow little, if any, light to reach the ground below them, effectively keeping weeds and other plants from sprouting. So that its own seed has the opportunity to sprout and grow, in winter the tall racemes of the Actaea fall outward around the plant depositing the seeds well out of the shadow of the mother plant.

There are many species of Actaea, with most blooming between mid-summer and mid-autumn, and some blooming later. Actaea bloom for weeks, having bottlebrush-shaped flowers that stand erect or drooping above the plant. Their very sweet fragrance travels lightly on the breeze. I love the smell, however, I recommend planting them away from the house, or at least bedroom windows, as the bouquet of some varieties may smell medicinal to some people, hence the common name bugbane.

Some species of Actaea, like A. racemosa, were used by native peoples medicinally, and is still used by some herbalists. Like many plants and pharmaceuticals, it has toxic properties and should be sited out of the reach of children. Using A. racemosa when taken regularly as an herbal medicine has been linked to liver failure and susceptibility to hepatitis.

A. racemosa blooming

Specimen bed of hostas in mid-July with A. racemosa blooming

In the garden, Actaea have many fine attributes. The finest is they aren’t fussy. I have found them to be a pest-resistant and vigorous plant needing little attention, if properly sited. They can handle light shade or mostly sunny locations, growing taller in shade and shorter in the sun. The darker cultivars require more sun. They like a fairly heavy, dependably moist soil, neutral-to-acidic, with some leave mold, in other words, the type of soil found in woodlands, like the Oak Savanna woodlands here in the Twin Cities area. They native to the Eastern Broadleaf Forest, and are found in zones 3-7, from Ontario to Georgia, west to Arkansas, up and through Minnesota’s Arrowhead and across to Ontario.

I have my Actaea just inside the drip lines of oak trees getting some direct morning sun, but otherwise they spend most of the day in moderate to heavy shade. I have wood mulch around the plants that front them to the edge of the lawn, but under the Actaea I have the leaves I’ve raked in from the lawn in the fall.

I planted my first Actaea in 1993. It was an A. racemosa; common names include Black Cohosh and Black Snakeroot. The plant creates a very dense canopy of shiny, dark, forest green leaves about three feet high, with racemes holding erect, bright white flowers in mid-July to two or three feet above.

In 2000, I purchased an A. racemosa atropurpurea (Black Snakeroot or Branching Bugbane). Unlike the species, it has greater height—a good foot taller, and a very late bloom of mostly drooping panicles filled with snow white flowers. The branching racemes and stems are dark maroon color. Also unlike the A. racemosa, the leaves of this variety are narrower, coarsely toothed, matte, and of a medium green color. It also has a nicer fragrance than A. racemosa.

In 2002, I divided the A. racemosa and planted it on either side of the A. racemosa atropurpurea. The three plants were planted behind a portion of an arc of hosta Honeybells in the northwest corner of my backyard beneath a Red Oak. Click the thumbnail next to last paragraph in this article to see this bed. Pictured are four of the five Actaea now there. A young A. racemosa atropurpurea is on the far left of the photo with A. racemosas alternating in the row with the blooming atropurpureas.

The Tale of Black Beauty

A. Simplex, "Hillside Black Beauty" in bloomI purchased a Hillside Black Beauty, a cultivar of A. simplex, in 2002. It is grown for its purple leaves, turning more burgundy and bronze (depending on the light) in autumn, when it begins sporting erect panicles of milk white flowers emerging from burgundy buds.  I decided to plant it next to some August Moon hosta on the south side of the backyard.

It typically takes three or four years for an Actaea to start blooming, but their foliage compensates in the meantime. However, after three summers, the Black Beauty was barely showing signs of growth. So, in the fall of 2004, I moved it to the northern end of the line of the other Actaea, as they were doing quite well.

In 2006, I discovered a young A. atropurpurea growing within inches of the base of the Black Beauty, so I moved the little plant to the south end of the line behind a specimen bed of hostas. This gave me a line of five Actaea forming a weak S-shaped curve about 35 feet long, reflecting a truer S-shaped line created by the edge of the lawn in that corner of the yard.

Showing better growth, but still not blooming, in the spring of 2009, I moved the Hillside Black Beauty to an even brighter spot, filling its hole with another young A. atropurpurea that had sprouted up between two Honeybells. The new spot seems to be working out well, as I have gotten nice growth this year. I have it planted next a Gold Heart Bleeding Heart. The dark purple leaves of the Black Beauty contrast very dramatically with the light yellow leaves and scarlet flowers of this Bleeding Heart. (Look for a picture of this pair in 2011.)

Hosta Honeybells backed by A. racemosa and A. racemosa atropurpureaActaea are very lovely plants. If you have room and the minimal conditions required, it makes a great addition the woodland garden. Their foliage provides value all season, but in the fall when colors are beginning to change; to catch a bit of its fragrance as its tall blooms gracefully sway in the breeze is a delight.

Actaea behind hosta Honeybells, click for larger image.

Pulmonaria: Team Player and Star Performer

Add some sparkle to your shade or woodland garden with pulmonaria (Boraginaceae). Also widely known by the less-than-appealing common name of lungwort, and by the names Bethlehem sage and cowslip, these perennials are most often recognized by their white- or silver-speckled leaves. The dots and/or splotches can be fairly crisp or can appear to bleed into the leaf. Some of the more than a dozen pulmonaria species don’t have spots. Some have hairy leaves, while others have smooth leaves. Leaf size, color and markings change through the year, too, making them fun to watch grow. 

Patio bed from livingroom window

Woodland garden by the patio with hostas and Pulmonaria. Click for larger image.

Great Companions for Hosta
The remarkable foliage of these members of the Borage family makes them great companions for hosta. In the patio bed pictured above, Sissinghurst White and Mrs. Moon pulmonaria meander between and behind the hostas from the bird bath to lawn, supplying continuity and a pleasing dark backdrop to show off the attributes of the specimens. When viewed from patio level, they do a great job of hiding the knees of the larger plants behind them.
Another pulmonaria is used in this bed as a specimen, Majeste. It is about halfway up the patio to the left of the bright green heucherella, another fine companion plant for the hosta bed. The Majeste’s cool, silvery green-tinged leaves harmonize with the frosty glaucus on the hosta Hadspen’s Blue a couple of plants below it, and the pale-blue green and white of the hosta El Nino further up the patio border, setting off the warm yellow greens and creamy ivories of the surrounding hostas.
Excalibur flowersPulmonaria are flowering while some spring ephermerals are still blooming, which helps give the bed interest until the hostas have opened up. Pulmonaria blossoms can be white, or shades of blue, violet, or pink. They can also have blossoms of more than one color on the same plant, such as the Excalibur flowers seen in the photo inset on the left.

At the Front of the Border, too

Pulmonarias also make great specimens. In the picture on the left, below, a P. longifolia is paired with the hosta Pineapple Upside-down Cake. They play well off each other having a similar leave shape and habit, but contrasting color and texture. In the right photo, a Raspberry Splash makes a nice specimen. Its leave shape is contrasts sharply with those of the hostas around it.

Pulmonaria and Hosta

Pulmonaria make great specimens. Here are two P. longifolia varieties with hostas.

Pulmonarias are quite reliable in Zones 4 to 7, with some rated for Zone 8, and are fully evergreen in the more moderate climes. They do well in relatively moist, fertile soil, and shady conditions. High heat and humidity can lead to a bout of powdery mildew from which they will usually bounce back once drier air returns. They are easy to divide and move in the spring or fall. Another advantage of these plants slow-growing groundcovers is they will fill in any space where they can find room and light, so like the hostas they do a good job of smothering weeds, reducing maintenance.

To maintain vitality, pulmonaria should be divided about every three to five years. They are not invasive, but if you don’t cut off their flower heads, you may find one or two pop up somewhere in your yard.

Hosta as groundcover–H.Decorata is a classic

Hosta Decorata (click for larger image)

Hosta Decorata (click for larger image)

Hosta Decorata was one of the first hostas brought to Amercia from Japan at the turn of the last century. It’s a classic “groundcover” hosta. Several hosta like this one are classified as stoloniferous or somewhat stoloniferous, meaning they can grow and spread by rhizomes beneath the soil. 

The round, blunt, soft-green leaves of the Hosta Decorata provide a nice contrast to other hosta and plants. It grows less than a foot off the ground, but sends up large, deep violet flowers on tall stems, which rise to around two feet. It’s low, compact growth and tendency to spread make for a carefree and elegant mass planting. I’m using it at the base of a Black Walnut near the edge of the bed.

Hosta Decorata is very hardy, to Zone 3, and is easy to care for, move and, if desired, divide. It like lightly dappled shade and somewhat sandy soil I have it in, but it also does well in part sun and loamy clay.