It seems that every year, and for reasons best known to themselves, the world’s wonderful botanists get together and work out which plants need to have their names changed! I really have lost count of the number of plants I learnt about as a young student gardener, that no longer exist under those names.
It has happened to Senecio (or, now it should be Brachyglottis), and Coleus (Solenostemon), and Schizostylis (Hesperantha), and so on, and on. It has also happened to one of my favourite plants of all time: the Cimicifuga. Now, and forever more, it must be known as Actaea. Regardless of any name-hanging, however, this is a plant I will never be without in my garden!
Actaeas are also known as baneberries, bugbanes and snakeberries, and they thrive in shade. They have strong, architectural foliage from August to October, and flowers that seem to float above the leaves. They have some of the largest flower spikes you will ever find in a shade garden, too. These plants are refined and elegant, and they like to be noticed.
And I’m delighted to say that Farmer Gracy is now offering arguably the best of these Cimicifugas – sorry, Actaeas. It’s Actaea simplex (Atropurpurea Group) ‘Brunette’, a particularly classy plant, with large leaves of rich purple-black. In reasonably shady positions they hold this colour well into autumn; in more open or sunny positions, these deep purple leaves will probably fade slightly.
They do best where conditions are not too dry, and grow to a height of some 60-90 cm / 24-36", with their black-waving flower spikes much taller. From late summer, these spikes are topped by bottlebrush heads, purple-pink in bud, opening to white and heavily fragrant flowers. These flowers continue for weeks, and weeks. They are fragrant, too, and when they do fade, attractive seedheads soon follow. ‘Brunette’ has a surprisingly long period of interest, from spring when new shoots unfurl from a woody crown, until well into autumn. No staking is required.
The species, Actaea simplex, is native to northern Japan, northeastern China, Korea and into Russia and Siberia, so there is absolutely no question about its hardiness.
‘Brunette’ was first selected more than 30 years ago by a Danish nurserywoman who spotted seedlings of A. simplex ‘Atropurpurea’, which were varying greatly. She chose some with particularly good foliage, and kept refining these, ending up with a new plant possessing finely divided leaves that emerge a deep, almost black-purple.
Like most Actaeas, ‘Brunette’ is easily grown given a good soil that does not dry out, and with a high humus content (in other words, with well-rotted compost or leaf mould added to it over time). As these plants originated in cooler parts of the northern hemisphere, in UK gardens they are best in half shade, or full sun if you live in the north of Britain.
Propagation may be carried out in spring, by dividing large, mature clumps. Otherwise, these plants prefer not to be disturbed too often.
Actaea ‘Brunette’ associates well with ornamental grasses (such as the Japanese Hakone Grass, Hakonechloa macra ‘Alboaurea’), as well as traditional border plants such as Geranium ‘Johnson’s Blue’ and Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’.
Other Actaeas I’d be happy to make room for in my garden include ‘Black Beauty’ (with similar dramatically dark foliage); A. matsumurae (elegant white flowers followed by lime-green seed heads that last through winter); and the white baneberry, A. pachypoda (also known as ‘Doll’s Eyes’, with mid-green foliage, and white flowers that are followed with large, round white fruit with a black eye).
Finally, I’m pleased to say that I’m not alone in my appreciation of these beautiful baneberries. Influential Dutch garden designer, plant nurseryman, author, and renowned ‘king’ when it comes to modern planting style – Piet Oudolf (wiki) – uses them too. A leading figure of the “New Perennial” movement, he has created numerous breath-taking garden designs and plant compositions, using bold drifts of perennials and grasses (chosen as much for their structure and elegance as for their colour). A few years ago I walked the length of his High Line garden in New York, and was bowled over by his use of form and plant majesty. And Actaea ‘Brunette’, along with Miscanthus grasses, Rudbeckias and Eupatoriums, were all playing major roles throughout the planting schemes.
As far as the Actaea is concerned, Piet has exquisite taste!