Plant of the Month – September
Actaea simplex ‘Brunette’
Far more adaptable than most gardeners realize, A. s. ‘Brunette’ (formerly listed as Cimicifuga simplex ‘Brunette’) is a classy plant with large leaves of rich purpleblack, which in reasonably shady positions hold their colour into autumn. They do best where conditions are not too dry. In early autumn, tall purple spikes are topped by poker heads of delicate white, pink-tinged, fragrant flowers that continue for weeks, with attractive seedheads soon to follow. Associate it with Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’, Geranium ‘Rozanne’ or Hakonechloa macra ‘Alboaurea’ to name but a few.
Period of interest
Spring to Winter
‘Brunette’ is a wonderful perennial with a long period of interest, from spring when new shoots unfurl from a woody rootstock until well into autumn, with fragrant flowers on tall arching spikes. The species A. simplex (syn. A. ramosa) is native to northern Japan, Korea, northeastern China and into Russia and Siberia, so we can be confident of its hardiness. The less-than-complimentary common name of bugbane applies to the properties in some species which allegedly keep insects at bay. ‘Brunette’ was selected in the 1980s by Danish nurserywoman H. Christiansen of Virum Planteskole from seedlings of the variable A. s. ‘Atropurpurea’; on a visit to her nursery I was delighted to obtain plants to introduce it to British gardeners in 1990. The new, finely divided leaves emerge a deep, almost black-purple, and in a semi-shady spot will remain deep purple for most of the summer at 60–90 cm (2–3 ft.) high, perhaps fading in more open positions as flowering spikes develop in late summer and early autumn. From ground level these graceful, black waving stems can reach 150–180 cm (5–6 ft.), terminating in bottlebrush heads, purple-pink in bud, opening to white and heavily fragrant flowers, the culmination of a long season of interest, with seedheads remaining attractive. Like most actaeas, ‘Brunette’ is easily grown given a well-composted or organic soil that does not dry out. As most actaeas originate in cooler parts of the northern hemisphere, they are best in full sun or half shade according to climate. Division is best done in spring, but these plants prefer not to be disturbed too often.
150–180 cm (5–6 ft.) × 60–75 cm
Flowers late summer and autumn