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Portland Nursery

ACTAEA (syn. Cimicifuga): Bugbane

In early 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 use in modern herbal medicine for a variety of ailments.

A few varieties you can find at Portland Nursery:

A. racemosa - Black Cohosh


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

A. racemosa ‘Atropurpurea’


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

A. racemosa ‘Brunette’


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

A. 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.

A. simplex ‘Black Negligée’ – 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.

A. 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’.

A. elata (syn. Cimicifuga 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

A. pachypoda Doll’s Eyes

White_Baneberry_(Actaea_pachypoda) image by D. Gordon E. Robertson

Bloom with berries shown in inset

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.


Actaea racemosa 'Brunette'


Family: Ranunculaceae

Genus: Actaea (syn. Cimicifuga)

Common Name: Bugbane, Cohosh, Baneberry, Snakeroot, Fairy Candles, Doll’s Eyes, Herb Christopher

Origin: A. racemosa and A. pachypoda — East coast of N. America from Ontario to Georgia.

A. simplex and A. matsumurae – Mongolia, Eastern Russia, and Japan.

Other species extend the native range even further, but are not commonly cultivated.

A. elata — Pacific NW

Culture: Plant in part sun to part shade. At the coast or in cooler regions, it can be planted in full sun, but in Portland, protection from the hottest sun of the day is important to prevent leaf scorch.

Full shade will result in plants that reach for light or fall over, have greener leaves (as opposed to the desired purple) and flower only sparsely.

Actaeas prefer rich, deep soil where water doesn’t pool in winter with supplemental water in the dry months. Hardy in zones 4-9.

Maintenance: Easy care! Water deeply about once a week in dry weather, and cut back in fall when leaves brown.

Pest and Disease: Actaeas are generally easy to keep free of pests and diseases; apply Sluggo Plus to prevent cutworms in the fall and spring if leaves have been eaten in the past. Root rot is a possibility in poorly drained soils, if planting in a boggy spot, consider amending the soil with pumice at planting time.