I was rambling around the garden this morning, trying to get some “getting ready for winter” chores done before the rain started. I’m glad the drought is over, but of course the rain brings its own issues.
I noticed my ‘White Pearl’ is getting ready to bloom—it’s the last perennial to bloom in my shade garden every year, right around Halloween. Like a lot of perennials, ‘White Pearl’ has been reclassified and renamed by plant taxonomists based on the results of genetic testing, which gives more exact relationships than the classical system based on flower structure. Sort of like it was married and divorced a few times, starting as Cimicifuga simplex, then changed to Actaea simplex, and now apparently Actaea matsumurae.
Since horticulturists tend to be slow to adopt the new names (because it’s a lot of work and they may change anyway) you may find it listed in any of the above ways at your local garden center or in a plant catalog. Just look for ‘White Pearl’ and you should be okay. Common names include “bugbane.”
There is a perfectly fine native Actaea, Actaea racemosa, or Black Cohosh. The flowers and growth requirements are similar, although it blooms in the summer instead of fall, and gets taller, at four to six feet rather than the three to four feet of ‘White Pearl.’ They both are slow-growing plants that do best in partial shade, in garden soils to which you have added compost and which you water during dry spells.
I have two ‘White Pearl’ plants, both twenty years old. One gets no additional water, is about 18 inches tall, and it looks like the flower buds may have dried up before fully developing. The other is next to a small ditch that drains a lower area in my yard, and it’s triple the size and ready to bloom.
Other native Actaeas include the baneberries, noted for their showy red or white, highly poisonous, berries. (Missouri Botanical Garden, MOBOT, says that ‘White Pearl’ may produce poisonous blue berries. I haven’t observed that mine set fruit, however.)
There are other Asian Actaea cultivars that are fall blooming, some with purplish foliage and pink-tinted flowers. I don’t have much experience with these (well, I’ve killed a couple, but not recently). They are on the expensive side, and you should read the description carefully. With some of them, the purple foliage fades to green in the heat, with others, it is supposed to be more stable.
You are most likely to find Actaea in the garden center in late spring, having been potted the previous fall or in late winter. My experience with them in retail is that they don’t usually look very good in a pot; just a few leaves with a big price tag.
At Behnke’s we always seemed to miss a couple of waterings as we went into the summer or get watered too often, the curse of sprinkler irrigation), and the plants would lose their leaves, go dormant and sulk.
So then we had a pot of soil with a big price tag. As a result, garden centers usually don’t stock very many, and they tend to be available in peak spring season. All that said, however, they are definitely worth looking for if you have a good spot for them.
Larry Hurley, Retired Behnke’s Horticulturist