Basic information about Cimicifuga/Actaea. Includes Origin, Growing & Cultivation, Common Pests & Diseases, Interesting Facts & Uses, and Garden Design Tips.
The confusion of botanical name changes has an interesting history for this plant. Linnaeus placed it in the Actaea genus when it was first described (in the 1700s), but was later revised by Thomas Nuttall (in the 1800s) reclassifying it into the genus Cimicifuga. It became widely known and sold as ‘Cimicifuga’. The most recent DNA analysis has vindicated Linnaeus and shown that this plant is more closely related to the rest of the Actaea genus than it is to Cimicifuga, so the name has been changed back to reflect that relationship.
The botanical name, Actaea, is said to mean ‘baneberry’ which refers to the poisonous berries of many species.
The botanical name, Cimicifuga, comes from the Latin words ‘Cimex’ or bedbug, and ‘fugare’ meaning to drive away, referring to its use as a fumigant or bug repellent.
This plant has many common names – bugbane (also referring to bug repellent properties), black snakeroot (referring to its use as treatment for snakebite), fairy candle (reference to its flower), and black cohosh (Native American/Algonquin word for ‘rough’ referring to the texture and color of the root, which was used medicinally).
Actaea are native to the Northern Hemisphere, with most varieties native to North America in particular.
Growing and Cultivation
Actaea prefers partial shade and rich, humusy, slightly acidic soil. It tolerates poor drainage and prefers moist to wet conditions. Will burn on foliage in too much sun or with inadequate moisture. Actaea can be slow to establish, and frequently does not bloom until the second year.
Common Pests and Diseases
Actaea is not susceptible to any common pests or diseases. Sometimes can develop rust or leaf spots, and occasionally tarnished plant bugs can show up to nibble, but it is mostly insect repellent , and disease is uncommon.
This plant is both deer and rabbit resistant – they prefer not to eat this strongly smelling plant that is potentially poisonous in large doses.
Interesting Facts and Uses
Actaea racemosa (black cohosh) is economically important currently for its use in alternative and herbal medical treatments. The black, knobby rhizomes are harvested, dried, and used to as an alternative to hormone replacement therapy in treatment of menopause and PMS. It has been proven in some clinical trials to create an ‘estrogen-like’ effect in patients, reducing hot flashes and night sweats. Recent studies undertaken with the pure compounds occurring in this plant have found that they have beneficial effects on physiological pathways related to age-linked disorders like osteoporosis.
Actaea racemosa has also been used historically to treat fever, menstrual cramps, arthritis, and even sore throats and bronchitis.
Some people find the strong smell of the flowers very pleasant, while others find them repugnant.
Actaea racemosa ‘Atropurpurea’ and many named cultivars developed from it, have earned the UK Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit in 1993.
Flower spike opens from the bottom up, and can be used in cut flowers, although the fragrance is said to be a little overwhelming in an enclosed space.
Seed capsules can be decorative and may be left on the plant or dried and used in arrangements.
Actaea racemosa is the host plant for the larva (caterpillars) of the Appalachian Azure and Spring Azure butterfly, and its flowers attract many other butterflies as well as bees, making it a great addition to pollinator-friendly gardens.
Garden Design Tips
This plant gets quite tall! Actaea is best situated in the back of the garden for an impressive display of color and height and as a backdrop for smaller perennials. The ‘Atropurpurea’ group is dark purple/bronze/green leaved, making it an excellent dark background to set behind bright or medium colors to make them pop! While it is lovely in groups, it also makes a good specimen plant once established. Lacy dark foliage contrasts nicely with more broad-leaved perennials such as large hosta.
To purchase Cimicifuga/Actaea varieties, please visit our Shade Companion Plants Page.