Pagoda Dogwoods

Pagoda Dogwoods

Pagoda Dogwoods in June


These Pagoda Dogwood trees are 22 years old and receive morning sun.

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.

Finding the right site for a plant and the other way around

Our yard has varying light and soil conditions. We have deep shade, dappled shade, morning sun, mid-day sun, and a couple of spots with nearly all sun. We have areas where the ground drains quickly and others where it is nearly always cool and damp. We have rich soil and poor rocky soil. Some areas have a large amount of clay, while other areas are predominately sandy.

A problem area in our yard for many years was the hill of fill coming off the northwest corner of the garage. After taking out the apple tree that had died and the raspberries that covered the rest it when we moved in, we built a deck (pictured  is the current deck). We enriched the soil with organic matter, and tried any number of shrubs, perennials and annuals on it. The only shrub that remains is just off the hill by the corner of the deck, a boxwood that is now over six feet in every direction. It’s visible on the right side of the image that will open to a larger one, if you click it.

Click for larger image

Click for larger image

Astilbes turned out to be the answer.Since almost nothing else did well in the soil on that northwest facing slope, of which a large part only catches sun in the middle of the day, Astilbes are pretty much all we planted there. We had different kinds and varieties of Astilbe in several locations in the yard, but now most of them are on this hill. There’s also some Japanese Painted Fern and Ostrich Fern on the edges and to the back, as these grow almost anywhere in our yard.

 The hill was also boring as it lacked a feature and something to separate the Astilbes from the hillside of Ostrich Ferns on the north side of the garage The ferns are shaded from the morning sun by the only apple tree still standing on the property, unseen, off the northeast corner of the garage.

Before re-arranging, transplanting and adding a couple more Astilbe three years ago, I built a short, nearly-circular retaining wall which features a Pinky Winky Hydrangea. The retaining wall adds a layer of visual interest and enabled me to enhance the soil for the hydrangea, which catches sun from late morning to mid-afternoon. To edge the inside of the retaining wall, I’ve put in some annuals along with some Lamium “Aureum” that will ultimately surround the hydrangea.

Rodgersia, Rodgersia, where for art thou, Rodgersia?

A large, striking and very interesting broad leaf plant is the Rodgersia. It’s named for Admiral John Rodgers, who brought one back from Japan in the late 19th century. These plants are ideal for a boggy shade garden. They like constantly moist soil and the leaves can dry out quickly in wind, so putting them in a protected and moist area is important. We don’t have a bog, so I planted these in a low area next to the woods in the southwest quadrant of our yard, which is rich in humus and always damp. They get some morning sun and are protected by ferns, shrubs and Pagoda Dogwood to the back, and flanked by Ligularia on the left, which also enjoy constantly moist soil and protection from the afternoon sun.

Click for larger image.

Click for larger image

The Rodgersia have done very well in this protected spot. Additional protection is provided by some anti-deer/rabbit spray after the plants start coming up in the spring and until they are fully leafed out. This will insure a nice flower spike in late spring.

This picture was taken in June and shows their flowers, which have a slight licorice scent. Early in the season the leaves are a light to medium green, but as the season wears on they will take on an attractive bronze cast. It’s a great plant for contrast against the dark greens and purples of the Ligularia and the blue of the Sieboldiana hosta that can be seen behind them, and, not shown, the hosta “June” with its yellows, greens and blues bordering the lawn in front of them.

Spring, yes, but with many lawns it looks like late summer

After what seemed a very long winter, we’ve had an erratic and very dry spring here in Minnesota.

For the fifth year in a row our May, a normally wet month, was dry. Less than a half inch of rain fell this May, with only two other May’s on record having had less. This is hard on young plants trying to get a start on the season.  Luckily it has been cool. The windier conditions we’ve had are drying enough without adding heat to the equation.

The forecast is calling for a chance of rain everyday over the next several days. I hope we get some everyday, the ponds and lakes are low. We are down about three inches on the year, and last year we were down eight inches.

What can we do? Reduce the size of our lawns, and reduce the affect the sun has on drying the earth by planting trees and shrubs.

Should we water our lawns? Yes, but when it is really dry, we need to think of saving trees and shrubs, too, if not first.

Not water smartly will be costly for this neighbor

The failure of the neighbor across the street to water will be costly.


Water is a precious resource, and we don’t want to waste it. Many people think watering trees and lawns is a waste. However, not watering will invite weeds, which have to be dealt with through labor and/or herbicides that may be damaging to the environment. Trees, shrubs and plants have greater value than grass, except in native grasslands–the prairie. The time invested in a tree is valuable, too. Lose one, and it takes years to replace, plus the plant life that has adapted to living beneath the canopy also suffers. Replacing trees, plants, and lawns is costly, so avoid it by taking care of the plants you have.

Nature abhors a void, and will fill it with a plant or two not wanted in that spot, the true definition of a weed. Healthy lawns keep weeds out. A lawn that is drying up and dying, and even a lawn getting thin, invites weeds. Herbicides are expensive and generally aren’t healthy for life in general, but it’s how most people deal with weeds. So, be good to the environment, your pocketbook, and to your lawn and other plants by watering smart.

Smart Watering means Watering Deep

The roots of most plants– trees, shrubs and grasses, serve three purposes: to (1) hold the plant in place so it can (2) feed and (3) drink, with the goal of growing and reproducing. The entire root system holds the plant in place, while specialized parts of the roots absorb nutrients and water necessary for life. Feeder roots are near the surface and extend beyond the drip line. They are close to the surface because that’s where most of the nutrients are located. Water is required for feeding. An unwatered plant won’t get any nutrients and will die. Many plants have tap roots, too, which are designed specifically for obtaining life-sustaining water from deep in the ground.  

In drought conditions and really hot weather, it is important to get the water deep under the surface. Water on and close to the surface of the ground easily evaporates. When water gets a few  inches below the surface the soil retains the moisture, which is often measured by agronomists, and is called sub-soil moisture.

Watering deep encourages grasses and other plants to send their roots down deep. Lightly watering causes more harm than good. Unless one waters deeply the plant doesn’t use its energy to send its roots down. It concentrates its efforts in that first inch or two of soil when it is lightly watered, say with an automatically sprinkling system every few days. When drought hits, or unusually high temperatures occur for several days, these shallowly watered and rooted plants are the first to dry up and die. Their tap roots weren’t fully developed, and thus can’t reach sufficient sub-soil moisture beneath the top soil in cooler, insulated earth. (This is where mulch comes in.)

In the spring, water deeply when there have been reports of low sub-soil moisture, and before high temperatures or drought can occur. This provides several benefits. The most important is it will save your plants, but it also means won’t have to water as often. A lesser percentage of water will be lost to evaporation with more going to the plant. Less water will be used overall, because watering deep is more efficient.

I recommend watering in the early morning before the wind normally picks up, and the leaves can dry to avoid fungus and other issues.

What is Watering Deep?

Watering deeply means putting down at least an inch of water, maybe two. If you are using a sprinkler system, you can gauge how much water is going down by putting a pot saucer (one at least an inch deep) out in the path of your sprinkler. If you are hose watering large plants and trees, water until it puddles around the plant, go to another plant, then return to the first plant and water until it puddles around the plant again, draining more slowing. Showering a plant will put the water on the drip line, and once identified if the leaves aren’t touching the soil, water a few inches either side of the drip line and toward the center if the plant is known to have a deep tap root. 

In the heat of the summer, thirsty plants like roses, and grasses kept short, need about an inch a week to flourish, but most other common plants require less. To protect the earth and your lawn as higher temperatures arrive, or if little or no rain is in the forecast, set your lawnmower up a notch or two. While I don’t scalp my lawn in the spring, if we are getting good rainfall I will keep it very short while it is still cool to encourage rhizome growth for a healthy, thick lawn that will prevent weeds from getting a foothold. Then I increase the height of my mower a setting every 10° (F) increase in temperature.

One last thought on watering smart, efficiently and effectively. Know your plants so you can properly site and care for your plants. BTW. I didn’t finish this last night, and this morning it is starting to rain.