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Cornucopia - Actaeas

Actaeas
Sue Ward

Walking around my garden dead-heading dahlias in late August, the air is full with the sweet honey–scented flowers of the actaeas, such good plants for the late summer and early autumn borders. The tall elegant spires of white flowers that arise from equally good foliage have a charm that takes me by surprise every year.

The late summer varieties quietly fill their allotted space through the early summer months giving a good foliage display. Then, as autumn draws near, the dark purple branching stems begin to grow with many tight purplish flower buds which open to slender spires of small, sweetly scented creamy-white flowers.

I seem to have collected quite a few over the years that I have gardened, some for shade and some that do better in full sun. They all respond well if given a well-fed humus-rich soil, with moisture through a dry summer.

The first plant that I acquired was Actaea matsumurae 'Elstead Variety' which was growing in Beth Chatto’s garden. We had visited on a warm early autumn day some 20 years ago and as we walked around the damp garden, we were aware of a sweet scent – but it took us a little while to locate it. The plants had wonderful dark green ferny cut-leaf foliage and rising from them were 6 ft tall purple stems with very fragrant white starry flowers. I loved it and went straight to the nursery to buy one.

On arriving home I planted it in a semi-shade position at the back of a small border and it has been there ever since; it is the last to flower, in mid to late September.

Actaea dahurica B&SWJ8653 is also for semi-shade with good soil. The ferny, cut leaves are a pale apple green and it has many heads of large white flowers; grows 5 ft to 6 ft tall, depending on how much moisture is on the soil. The flowering period is during August and September and can last as long as 4 to 5 weeks.

This year I was given Actaea americana which has rounded silverish leaves that do look very good in early summer and darken to green as the season progresses. It has not flowered yet but I believe it has tall flowering stems to 6 ft or so. I’ve planted it where it will get morning sun and dappled shade in the afternoon.

I also grow four of the dark-leaved varieties, all in full sun:

  • Actaea simplex Atropurpurea Group 'James Compton' has good dark greeny-bronze leaves although the foliage is greener when young, it gets darker as it matures and has lots of 5 ft flowering stems.
  • Actaea simplex Atropurpurea Group 'Pink Spike' has lovely dark foliage and flowers that start white but quickly fade to pink. Because the foliage is so good I’ve planted it at the front of the border where the leaves make a real statement – it grows to 4 ft in flower.
  • Actaea simplex Atropurpurea Group 'Brunette' also has great foliage which is almost black with a maroony-plum undertone. I’ve underplanted this with Dahlia 'Dark Desire' to give a lovely combination, the single flowers of the dahlia are a plumy black and 5 ft tall.
  • Actaea simplex Atropurpurea Group 'Black Negligee' is another decorative dark foliage plant with good 6 ft tall stems of white flowers. It holds itself well in the border and has bulked up very quickly.
Last year I was given Actaea simplex variegated from a good friend. I used this plant on our HPS Chelsea display in 2009 and, although it was not in flower, the foliage was very impressive. It is tall and elegant with branching stems and lovely soft green and cream leaves with some spotting and it has the white spikes of flowers in the early autumn. In the garden I have partnered it with the autumn-flowering Aconitum carmichaelii 'Royal Flush', Kirengeshoma palmata and Galega x hartlandii 'Alba'. The foliage of the actaea stands out well throughout the season.

These plants have given me a lot of pleasure over the years, if you don’t grow any of these wonderful plants do give them a go – you won’t be disappointed.

First published in the Ranunculaceae Group Newsletter, Autumn 2011
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 30.
© Copyright for this article: Sue Ward

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2012. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.


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