July 08, 2011

Plant of the month:
Cimicifuga (Actaea racemosa)

This one is a conversation-starter! If you want a dramatic addition to your shade garden and have a little patience while it's establishing, Cimicifuga is a good bet.

Bugbane, one of this plants common names and the one I usually remember, towers above most other plants in the garden, at 6 ft. to 8 ft. tall.

The foliage, itself, is noteworthy for its feathery form (here, surrounded by Ferns).

Before flowering, stalks rise up from the center of the plant and form circular flower buds.

When the flowers are in full bloom—from midsummer to fall—they resemble exploding fireworks. And after blooming, seed pods form along the stem, so the plant retains autumn interest.

Here are a few facts about Bugbane from various sources*:

  • Prefers woodland-type, moisture-retentive soil;
  • Thrives in full to partial shade, but tolerates more sun if the soil is moist;
  • Good neighbors: Astilbe, Japanese Anemone, Ferns, and Hydrangeas;
  • Other common names: Cohosh, Snakeroot, Fairy Candles;
  • Grows best in USDA zones three to eight;
  • Best propagated by division in the spring, or from fresh seed;
  • Native to central and eastern U.S.;
  • Repels pests and was used by Native Americans as a snakebite antidote;
  • Rarely bothered by pests.

And here’s what I’ve learned about Bugbane through several years of experience:

  • Transplanting can be a little challenging. I’ve given several friends transplants, with 50/50 results.
  • Planting from seed seems to work as well as transplanting. When the seed pods form in fall, cut a portion of the stalk and plant it upside-down with seed pods in the soil—directly in the ground or in a pot to start.
  • The scent is musky and slightly unpleasant—it’s easy to understand why Bugbane repels pests.
  • It’s a great anchor plant at the back of a perennial bed.
  • It looks ethereal when backlit by the setting sun.

    When Bugbane blooms, I know the heart of the summer has arrived. It’s a stately focal point in the garden, it attracts beneficial pollinators, and it repels the bane of Wisconsin summers—the dreaded mosquito.

    Planted a moderate distance from the house (to avoid the strong scent), it can’t be beat as a unique addition to a multi-level shade plant garden.

    * "Annuals, Bulbs & Perennials," Anness Publishing Ltd., London; "Carefree Plants," Reader's Digest Books, Pleasantville, N.Y.; usda.gov


    1. That is one very lovely plant. I planted two of them last fall and they did not bloom yet. I have enjoyed reading your post and the beautiful images.

    2. That is definitely a cool plant, but the "prefers mosisture retentive soil" was a sinker for me. My moist, sunny spots are packed while I'm always scouting for plants for my dry, shady spots. It's definitely a beauty!

    3. It certainly looks dramatic! I'm not sure it would love my mostly dry soil, though. Which is sad because I think it would look fabulous behind my roses!

    4. Awesome plant. Love the first photo!

    5. @Lily: Good luck with your Bugbane. One of my dear friends who started hers a couple of years ago, is just now seeing blooms. I would like to see pictures when yours blooms.

      @TS: Yeah, I don't think it would do well in dry soil, although I've never tried it in that type of setting. It's kind of a weird plant, but I like it.

      @Holley: Yes, it would be a great backdrop to your Roses! Darn, well maybe you can find a spot somewhere?

      @Mike: Thanks! Sometime I want to try to get a shot with the afternoon sun lighting it from a different angle. One of these days...

    6. This is indeed a special plant to have in the garden. Repellant to mosquitoes - simply music to my ears.

    7. Very neat plant! You are making me wish I had some shade in my garden. :)

    8. Beautiful plant. Did you know the meaning of "Cimicifuga"? The word comes from Latin and means: "the one that keeps away bedbugs"! :)

    9. This is such a striking plant. A natural mosquito repellent is always welcome in the garden, too. I wonder if it could repel Japanese beetles, too:)

    10. This is a great post! Thank you for all the information and the beautiful pictures. I have not heard of this plant before...

    11. @Autumn Belle: There are so many mosquitoes here this time of year, I'm not sure it makes a huge difference. But maybe a little. :)

      @Hanni: And I wish I had more sun! Trade you a section!

      @Dona: Yes, I read that on a gardening site. Funny, I can't imagine having Bugbane in the bedroom.

      @Rose: I'm not sure about the Japanese beetles. How are your efforts against that pest working out?

      @Masha: Thank you, and you're welcome. I forgot to write that it sends out volunteers which makes the placement a little tricky.

    12. Love the way it towers against the tree, as though competing! Thanks for featuring - have the shade but wonder if its moist enough

    13. Laura: Yes, it does seem to like to hug the Oak trees. Maybe it likes the leaf mulch and the moist, shaded soil.

    14. I've never grown it, but it does look so statuesque against the bark of the tree. Maybe I'll plant it someday too.~~Dee

    15. Stunning plant...and equally stunning photographs. I have never seen this plant before. Very lovely. I agree with TS...the "prefers moisture retentive soil" is a deal breaker in my neck of the woods :/ Lovely to see in your garden though :)

    16. @Dee: It's a unique plant. My husband likes the scent, but I'm glad it's planted away from the house so I can enjoy it from a distance.

      @Diane: Thank you! I guess the moist soil is important for this plant. But I envy all the bright sun you have down your way--especially during the winter months!

    17. What a focal point staged in front of the tree bark. It's a little tall for my space. This is one of the most through posts on one plant I've seen in a long time. Well done.

    18. @Patrick: Yeah, it's an impressive one. It's starting to spread a little too much, but I can dig up the extras and give them to friends. Thanks for your kind comments!

    19. I love this plant but I haven't ever noticed a scent??? Mine must not be planted in optimum conditions either because it never gets as tall as yours.

    20. That is a cool plant! I have been planting more native plants in our front yard, but it's mostly sunny. I have some plants that are supposed to get big, and am excited to see how much they grow next year.

    21. @Kathleen: My husband didn't notice the scent much either, and then he got a good whiff and remarked how unpleasant it was. I think it might be worst when it's in full bloom.

      @Sue: Isn't it nifty?! I wish I had more sun--it's so much easier to incorporate color into the landscape in a shady yard.

    22. My previously spectacular Actaea racemosa in Southeastern PA is being skeletonized as I write by a swarm of Margined Blister Beetles. It has all the drama of a train wreck, intensified by the capacity of the pests to make skin ooze. It's exciting, but it means the end of my relationship with Bugbanes -- they look ratty as often as not, I think, and they really do stink. Now that it turns out that they're pest-ridden, too, I'm calling it quits!

    23. @Ethan: I can't blame you. They are rather stinky--especially in full bloom. And if they carried pesky beetles, I'd probably pull them out, too. I need to thin mine out because they're starting to take over in a couple of spots. But I like having at least one tall Bugbane at the back of the perennial bed.