The genus Cimicifuga has long suffered from a crisis of identity and has recently been transferred to the genus Actaea. Although this plant is popularly known, and still identified as Cimicifuga racemosa var. cordifolia it is now correctly called Actaea racemosa var. cordifolia, or more simply Actaea racemosa.
It also has quite a collection of interesting common names, but whatever one chooses to call it, the genus holds a number of low maintenance, long lived perennials that work well in our gardens.
Actaea racemosa var. cordifolia is a plant of open forests. It is a good plant for the mid to back of border, is tolerant of sun or shade and is perfect for damp or poorly drained soil. With beautiful large, lobed leaves, the plant forms a nice clump of deep green foliage about 60cm (2ft) in height that provides excellent texture and colour throughout the growing season.
It comes into its own late in the season, when multiple stiff and stout stems emerge from the base of the plant and rise up to 150cm (5ft) tall. The stems are upright when grown in full sun, and tend to bend toward bright light, particularly when plants are grown in substantial shade.
It blooms with impressive long racemes of chalky-white blooms that resemble fluffy tapered candles. Typically 30 to 60cm (12 to 24in) long, they are lightly branched in the upper portion they are composed of numerous, tiny individual star-like, fragrant flowers.
Actaea racemosa adds architectural height and late summer bloom to a shaded part of the border or shade garden and are also effective in woodland gardens, cottage gardens, naturalistic gardens and naturalised areas. Stunning when grown in groups, although single plants have good specimen value once established. The flowers may be left on the plant throughout autumn for added interest and seed pods make interesting additions to flower arrangements.
Sowing: Sow seeds immediately upon receipt.
The seeds of Actaea go into various stages of dormancy that can make germination very uneven. They must be exposed to a warm/cold/warm cycle before they will germinate. The easiest way to germinate is to sow in the ground, or in trays covered with grit and leave outdoors, allowing nature to provide the necessary temperature changes. Plant 5cm (2in) apart, approx 5mm (¼in) deep in shaded, prepared seedbeds.
Otherwise, sow the seeds on the surface of lightly firmed, moist seed compost in pots or trays. Do not cover the seeds, but tightly press into the compost as they need light to germinate. Water from the base of the tray and keep the compost moist but not wet at all times. To speed up the germination process and improve the germination rate, expose the seeds to warm temperature 22°C (70°F) for two weeks, followed by cold temperature 4°C (40°F) for three months.
Germination usually occurs in spring regardless of when they are sown and can take between 30 and 365 days.
Prick out seedlings sown in trays, once they have their first set of true leaves and transplant into 7.5cm (3in) pots containing free-draining compost and grow them on in frost free conditions until large enough to plant outside. Gradually acclimatise to outdoor conditions for 10 to 15 days before planting out after all risk of frost has passed. Overwinter autumn sown plants in frost-free conditions before planting out the following spring. Plant 30 to 60cm apart.
Actaea racemosa requires little to no maintenance. It prefers a position slightly moist, cool, humus-rich, preferably acidic soil and light shade or alternating. Foliage tends to scorch and growth may slow down if soils are not consistently moist, so in hot, dry areas water the plants when needed in summer.
The plant generally does not need staking, but taller flower spires may need some support.
Actaea are hardy to minus 40°C (-40°F), the plants are extremely long lived, to around 25 years. They may be cut back in late autumn after flowering and fruiting. Large clumps may be divided in spring.
Perennial borders, Shade and Woodland gardens. Naturalistic gardens and Naturalised areas,
The root and rhizome of Actaea cordifolia, or Black Cohosh are sold as whole, semi-whole, chopped, cut and sifted, dry powders, and liquid and dry extracts. They are widely available in dietary supplement and phytomedicinal formulations in the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, and elsewhere. In modern phytotherapy, preparations are used primarily for the treatment of menopausal symptoms.
Actaea cordifolia is native to in eastern North America, it has a very broad range particularly Appalachia, and is frequently encountered in a wide variety of wooded habitats across its range.
Native occurrences in moist, mixed deciduous eastern North American forests and forest margins, often in mountainous terrain from Massachusetts south to Georgia, west to northwest and north central Arkansas and the adjacent Ozarks of Missouri, north through the Ohio River Valley to southern Ontario.
It is in great demand as a medicinal, all of which comes from wildcrafting since there are no significant cultivation sources for this species in the medicinal market. Although not of significant conservation concern at the national level, at the extremities of the plant’s natural range it may be considered rare at the state level.
It was introduced in 1732 when John Bartram, the Philadelphian plant-hunter sent Cimicifuga racemosa, to England.
All plants in the genus Cimicifuga have recently been transferred to the genus Actaea. The man responsible for their classification, Dr James Compton and his team analysed morphological and genetic data and supported the combination of the genus concepts of Actaea, Cimicifuga, and Souliea, essentially reverting to Linnaeus’s 1753 concept of the genus Actaea. Previously, the major morphological basis for separating Cimicifuga from Actaea was fruit type. Actaea has a berry-like fruit and Cimicifuga has a dry follicle.
This change dates from 2000 but is filtering through very slowly - even specialist nurseries are resisting the taxonomists' edict. So, whatever the RHS Plant Finder says, bear in mind that many of the bugbanes on sale will still be labelled as Cimicifuga.
The genus name Actaea is from the Greek word Actaia, meaning ‘elder’. The name was given by Linnaeus because of the resemblance of the leaves and the berries to the elder.
The species name cordifolia in Latin means with ‘heart-shaped leaves’.
This plant was formerly known as Cimicifuga racemosa. Cimicifuga is taken from cimexfugo, meaning ‘to force to flee’ or 'to put to flight'. Bugbane is the English equivalent meaning 'the bane of a bugs life'.
Both names derive from its reputation for being an insect repellent. Indeed, tops of the elder-scented Eurasian species C. foetida used to be dried and stuffed into pillows and mattresses for this purpose.
The species name racemosa means that the plant has flowers 'in the form of a raceme' and refers to the arrangement of individual flowers on an elongated stalk. that is on short stems from a longer stem.
The genus names are pronounced sim-ih-siff-YOU-guh, or if you are more up to date with these things, ack-TAY-yuh.
Common names include Fairy Candles, which applies to all species of Actaea, Appalachian bugbane, Black snakeroot, Baneberry, Black cohosh.
Bugbane is in reference to the insect repellent properties of this genus, while Cohosh comes from an Algonquin (American Indian) word meaning ‘rough’ in reference to the appearance of plant rhizomes.
Synonyms: Cimicifuga cordifolia, Cimicifuga racemosa var. cordifolia, Cimicifuga rubifolia.
- Additional Information
Average Seed Count 25 seeds Family Ranunculaceae Genus Actaea Species cordifolia Synonym Actaea rubifolia, Actaea racemosa Common Name Actaea racemosa var. cordifolia Other Common Names Fairy Candles, Appalachian bugbane Hardiness Hardy Perennial Flowers Long racemes of chalky-white blooms Natural Flower Time August to October Height 120 to 150cm (4 to 5ft) Spacing 60cm (24in) Position Full sun or partial shade Soil Moist, fertile soil Time to Sow September to October