Fairy candles: Big native plants for the shade garden

Actaea racemosa (Cimicifuga) has a number of common names, including fairy candles. Its large size makes this native plant a dramatic choice to grow in shade.

Courtesy of Gene Bush
Actaea racemosa (Cimicifuga) is a large native perennial plant for areas of shade gardens that receive good light. Its white flowers give it the common name of fairy candles.

My age is beginning to tell on me. I find myself more easily irritated by change.

Just as I become comfortable at having a plant's botanic name firmly memorized so I can recall it at a later date, someone comes along and changes the nomenclature.

I had finally remembered how to spell ci-mi-ci-fuga. Of course, then the species name was changed to Actaea. Actaea may be easier to spell, but I had the rhythm down on Cimicifuga and was not inclined to give it up. Mumble, mumble, rottenruckenshuch.

Actaea racemosa (Cimicifuga) -- common name, fairy candles -- blooms just as spring ephemerals are going dormant, and when there is a bit of a pause in woodland bloom.

As if to signal the start of summer, fairy candles -- or black bugbane, black snakeroot, or black cohosh, the plant's other common names -- come into bloom.

The common name of bugbane comes from roots being dried and ground, mixed with sugar, and used as bait to poison flies in times before screens on windows or doors.

The name fairy candles is derived from the white spires of bloom on long stems above the foliage.

Good light, moist soil mean big plants

This plant prefers an edge of the wood habitat. I find it grows best when located in as much light as you can provide without locating it in full sun for more than a couple of hours.

The more consistent moisture level you provide, the larger and nicer the plant's appearance will be. Compost dug into the soil before transplanting, along with a mulch of chopped leaves, helps to provide consistent moisture, cooler root run, and gentle nourishment.

Actaea racemosa is a large perennial that can reach eight feet when very well grown. In my garden, it reaches about four feet in foliage and the blooms add an additional two feet to the overall height.

Being large, it takes time to settle in after transplanting. I find three to four years is needed before it attains its full size. A mature clump will be three feet in diameter.

What to grow with fairy candles

Ferns are favorite foliage companions. Hydrangea arborescens ssp. discolor is my choice of shrubs because it begins to bloom at the same time and continues in bloom long after the Actaea has completed its show.

Canadian wild ginger, Asarum canadense, is a great ground cover for a large perennial such as Actaea racemosa to rise from. A favorite non-native companion plant is Hakone grass or Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra), be it species or any named cultivar.


Gene Bush, a nationally known garden writer, photographer, lecturer, and nursery owner, gardens on a shaded hillside in southern Indiana. His website is He also writes the Garden Clippin's Newsletter. To read more by Gene here at Diggin' It, click here.

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