New Plant Name for an Old Favourite – Actaea

I first got to know this plant as Cimicifuga the old name originating for the cimex meaning bug, fuga meaning to drive away, these relate to it’s common name of Bugbane however the botanists gave it the new name of Actaea. The greek translation of aktea is of little help meaning elder tree but we should not let this confusion put you off the wonderful herbaceous perennial described in one catalogue as a truly striking plant.

My favourite Actaeas are the ones that belong to the Actaea simplex Atropurpurea Group, in other words the purple/bronze leaved cultivars, although in a garden setting the foliage can appear almost black. I remember seeing this plant for the first time in the early 1990s in Gothenburg Botanic Gardens and it has remained one of my favourites plants for using in herbaceous borders ever since and never fails to catch people’s attention. This choice perennial not only produces delightful deep purple leaves with plum purple stems from May to October but it has the additional attraction of producing impressive flower spikes said to resemble pipe cleaners in September and October when many herbaceous are past their best. The flowers are unusual in that they have no petals but are white with a tinge of purple, pleasantly scented having the additional bonus of attracting bees and butterflies. If you are looking for a herbaceous perennial to provide interest throughout the season this one is hard to beat.

Cultivation – The plant is said to thrive in damp shade but I have found it equally successful in full sun, providing the soil holds some moisture. (Not much of a worry this summer in the Lothians!) The addition of plenty of organic matter when planting will assist this. It is advisable to avoid windy sites.

Plant association – The plant will grow to approximately 120cm and have a spread of approximately 30cm. The dark foliage contrasts well with lighter foliage or can also pick up darker colours of red or purple. My favourite plant combination to plant it behind is Geranium phaem ‘Samobor’


Actaea simplex ‘Atropurpurea Group’ – The three cultivars below all originate from this group but as this group can be seed raised they can be variable so if you want to guarantee the characteristics described below, then you need to select the vegetative propagated cultivars. Otherwise plants with this name can still be very worthwhile garden plants.

Actaea simplex ‘Brunette’ (pictured) – This plant has all the characteristics described above and has been credited by the RHS with an Award of Garden Merit.

Actea simplex ‘Hillside Black Beauty’ – Said to have the darkest foliage of the selected cultivars.

Actea simplex ‘James Compton’ – Similar to the plants above but more compact achieving approximately 90cm.

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