There has been a great deal of confusion between the similarities of Actaea and Cimicifuga because many of the species are so alike. DNA analysis combined with many similarities between the two groups does not keep Actaea and Cimicifuga separate. Overall the classification is now known as Actaea.
Actaea are a long-lived perennial comprising 28 species from North America, Europe and Asia.
Five species formed the original group and these all produce white, red and black berries. The original species are mainly woodland plants. The other 23, which were recognised as Cimicifuga, form seeds in capsules. One particular species, A. racemosa Award of Garden Merit (AGM), comprises a cross between the two — dry capsules and a fleshy berry.
Actaea belong to the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae), of which the flower forms bear a strong resemblance. The common name is "baneberry" or "bugbane". Flower colours include yellow, pink, orange, white and cream. The colour range of the petals are actually the sepals, as is the case with the family members the hellebores. Actaea are particularly good for pollinating insects. Growing 2-3m high, they are well positioned at the back of herbaceous borders.
The plants grow from compact rootstocks. The majority form large basal leaves that divide into a mix of striking smaller leaves or a lesser number of larger leaves. It is this interesting leaf structure that makes them a striking plant to look at even before they flower. The flowering stems produce a short branching effect and are tall and upright.
Some species such as A. simplex form eye-catching white spires, while others such as A. pachypoda produce a division of smaller side branches displaying white berries. Species can be recognised from each other by the number of small leaf-like bracts below each flower. The shape of the cup-like nectaries, numbers of berries and shapes of the seeds are also all distinguishing factors.
The plants perform well in an aspect that provides cool temperatures in dappled shade. Their roots establish well in damp but not wet soil. A large number of the species perform well in acidic soils, but some species can grow in a soil pH of seven and above into the alkaline range.
A light mulch of leaf mould applied in the winter can be beneficial to the roots. The important rule is to never let the plants dry out.
Actaea can be propagated from dividing clumps of established plants in autumn or spring. I have had the best results from division in the autumn, allowing the roots to settle in prior to the spring.
Propagation from seed is challenging because natural chemical inhibitors can delay germination for several seasons. If seed is collected and sown ripe, the effect of the chemical inhibitors are reduced. Several problems can affect the genus, including bacterial soft rots — hence the importance of siting the plants correctly — as well as snails and slugs.
What the specialists say
John Winterson, deputy buyer, RHS plant centres
"Wisley plant sales sell a wide range of Actaea — up to nine different species and cultivars. Two are of the most popular and are very close in sales. These are A. simplex (Atropurpurea Group) ‘Brunette’ and A. simplex ‘Pink Spike’. These show how the deep-purple foliage is a strong selling point.
"Our customers love the cottage garden feel that you get from either dotted among shrubs or in their herbaceous borders. Other popular ones of this type include ‘James Compton’ and ‘Black Negligee’. If we can get hold of enough then we will sell from a bold display, but otherwise we have a steady demand from our A-Z beds. They are easy to grow but can be a little slow to get going. One to look out for is ‘Chocoholic’ — a great name for this cultivar."
Richard Hopkins, Applegarth Nurseries, Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire
"A. matsumurae ‘White Pearl’ is a very good green-leaved cultivar flowering freely in autumn.
A. simplex (Atropurpurea Group) ‘Black Negligee’ is early flowering with white fragrant blooms from July to September. The dark leaves of ‘Black Negligee’ and ‘James Compton’ make them particularly striking plants.
"Actaea provide height, scent and elegance in the garden. They are particularly good for naturalistic planting in wet/damp areas in humus-rich soil. A particularly strong selling point is the leaf structure even before the plants produce their bottle-brush-shape flowers. Sales of the plants are reasonable and they are also a good cut flower."
Species and varieties
A. dahurica is also known as the dahurian bugbane. The basal leaves of this species are dull green and comprise nine to 27 or more basal leaflets. These leaflets are oval or diamond shaped, with each apical leaflet comprising three and sometimes five lobes.
Its stems species are within the tallest range of Actaea — 1-1.5m long. From September to October, these stems will carry small white flowers in their hundreds, borne on lateral branches.
This is the only species that comprises male and female flowers on separate plants. The male plants produce the greater number of flowers. The flowers are white and comprise two-to-four small nectaries that are shaped like cups. Under each stalk are three small pointed bracts.
This species enjoys a cool, damp aspect that emulates a woodland in a good rich loamy soil, with the addition of plenty of organic matter. It originates from Siberia, Korea and China (Manchuria).
A. cordifolia syn. Cimicifuga rubifolia is also known as Kearney’s bugbane. Its basal foliage has a green shine that comprises nine leaflets. Each of the leaflets is similar to the shape of a hand, with five-to-seven heart-shaped pointed lobes that are 15cm across. The upright stems have a dark appearance and comprise several upright lateral branches that producing 30-60cm flower spikes from July until August. The pale creamy white flowers are without nectaries and are carried on short stalks. Under each flower stalk there are three pointed bracts.
A. matsumurae syn. A. simplex var. matsumurae is also known as Matsumura’s bugbane. Its basal foliage is divided into 27 diamond-shaped leaflets. The apical leaflet on each leaf comprises three lobes. The stems are pale-green and upright, with two or three very short lateral branches. The flower spikes are 15-30cm long and often form an arch over the apex.
The flowers, which are white and carry a slight fragrance, are carried on flower stalks up to 1cm long from late September to October.
A. pachypoda has leaves that are composed of 27 diamond-shaped oval leaflets, with the apical leaflet on each leaf comprising three lobes. The stems are pale-green and upright in structure, with one or rarely two short lateral branches and 5-15cm flower spikes. Its flowers are white and carry no nectaries but comprise four-to-six nectary-like petals. These are carried on flower stalks in June to July. The flower stalks thicken as the fruits ripen.
A. simplex syn. A. racemosa — also known as the simple-stemmed bugbane — is increasingly popular. The basal leaves are split into 27 diamond-shaped to oblong lance-shaped leaflets.
The apical leaflet forms three lobes. The stems, upright and pale-green in colour, comprise two or three short lateral branches. In September, the arching flower spikes produce strong, fragrant white flowers that are 60-90cm long. The flower spikes hold two cup-shaped nectaries on the flower stalks, up to 2cm long. The elliptical white fruits produce a purple tip from July to August. This is a tall-berried species that enjoys the dappled shade of a woodland garden or border. It can also tolerate some lime in the soil.
A. racemosa AGM (H7) is also known as black snakeroot bugbane. Its leaves are split into 27 lance-shaped leaflets. This can sometimes vary, with the leaflets being broader. Each apical leaflet on each leaf comprises three lobes. Each of the stems, which are upright and pale-green, has several long upright lateral branches displaying flower spikes that are 30-90cm long. White or cream flowers form on stalks 1-2.5cm long. They do not have nectaries but comprise four nectary-like petals. This is one of the easier species to cultivate in a woodland setting or border in dappled shade. It can also tolerate lime.
A. rubra — the American red baneberry — is a variable species with leaves that are divided into 27 diamond- to oval-shaped leaflets. Each apical leaflet on each leaf comprises three lobes.
The upright pale-green stems form very short upright lateral branches. These are tipped with flower spikes that are 5-15 cm long in July, carrying 1-2.5cm white flowers. The flowers do not form nectaries but comprise four-to-six nectary-like petals. The flower stalks are thin during the fruit-ripening stage, comprising a pointed bract under each stalk. Round, red glossy fruits are produced from July until August. Suits a woodland situation and can tolerate some lime in the soil.