scratch and sniff this cimicifuga post?

I WISH TECHNOLOGY ALLOWED ME TO TRANSMIT the scent, and not just word-and-image data, on oddly-sweet Cimicifuga racemosa–or more accurately,  Actaea racemosa, as it was reclassified by taxonomists in recent years. I even like it when its bottlebrush-shape flowers are still mostly closed (above), in the first week or two of its month-long bloom cycle.

This native North American woodlander, also called black cohosh or bugbane or snakeroot, is slow to establish, and closely related to baneberry (Actaea rubra), which grows nearby it at my place like kissing cousins. My three black cohosh plants of a decade ago didn’t do much for years…and then they did. Now I have a glade of them, their astilbe-like foliage crowned with these sweet-smelling towering ivory wands throughout July here.

cimicifuga2When in flower, black cohosh (not to be confused with blue cohosh, a spring native) is 4 to 6 feet tall. Depending on the amount of light that filters through the canopy the spires are all wild (like the ones up top) or formally vertical (in a bit more sun, left). And as for needing maintenance: none.

It will ask your patience, however, as I say. But then all the best garden plants require the cultivation of a practice of patience, I do believe.

  1. margaret says:

    Oh, Diana, the scent of linden is really one of the garden’s very best. Yum. I don’t think this plant will deal with Xeric conditions, being a humusy-soil woodlander type.

  2. diana says:

    I’m guessing this might need a little more then the 13 inches of precipitation we get per year. If I can find it at one of our excellent nurseries I’ll give it a try, I’m a sucker for scented plants.

    My absolute favorite scent in the garden at the moment are the Linden trees which are in full bloom here in the Fort. I can smell them a block away and when I stand underneath the one next door the buzzing bees make the tree tremble.

  3. Brian G. says:

    I love the dark leaved varieties like ‘James Compton’ and ‘Black Beauty’. Does it really take as long as 10 years to do anything?

  4. Sylvia says:

    I didn’t know that cimicifuga had any scent! I have just bought Actaea simplex `Brunette do you know if this is scented as well? Next time I am visiting a garden with any bugbane in, I will give the flowers a good sniff!

    Thanks for the information about this plant.

    Best wishes Sylvia (England)

  5. margaret says:

    Welcome, Sylvia. I grow ‘Brunette’ and some of the other dark leaved varieties as well, and yes, they are very fragrant. You will not even have to give them a sniff, as the sweetness wafts quite a distance from the one you have purchased in my experience (though it blooms in late summer, not now). Good choice.

  6. kass says:

    Im running out today and getting a couple. I know its not the best time to plant now. I love sweet smelling plants and like to have a great smell throughout the season- outside the kitchen, bedroom and screened porch windows.Starting with lilac, then onto the roses, jasmine (on the screened porch) then the summer sweet and moonflower- so it will be nice to have this addition, I might even try to get the later blooming ones as well. Thanks for the tip

  7. margaret says:

    Welcome, Kass, and happy shopping! These are graceful, elegant plants, and I am always so happy when their time of the season arrives. And especially in the shady garden, where spring is usually the big moment. Enjoy.

  8. margaret says:

    @Dooryarder: Partial (dappled) is fine. Are they getting moisture? Mine did little the first few years.

    @Kass: The link in the post goes to mail-order Plant Delights, which sells it (also in my sources). Or call Rosedale Nursery on the Saw Mill farther south just above Yonkers and ask them for Cimicifuga racemosa or Actaea racemosa.

  9. Dooryarder says:

    Margaret – Any advice on best conditions? Is your glade in deep shade? My anemic specimens are in dappled shade and, after three years, maybe what I need is more patience – or more shade. Any thoughts?

  10. kass says:

    I went to Pound Ridge Nursery and Perrenial Gardens in Bedrford,NY and couldnt find it any suggestions where I can get it- can I just say black cohash?Thanks!

  11. philenor says:


    Been enjoying your blog and love that you have now highlighted black cohash for one and all as when friends come over to my home in August (when in bloom in my southern VT home) I immediately drag them over to the tall flowers with the lovely Seussian tops and have them take a long wiff – my favorite scent by far in my garden. And once growing they are indeed so easy, just be certain other flowers do not crowd them out – my mallow and bee balm always try to nudge their way in. -philenor

  12. margaret says:

    Welcome, Philenor. I am glad that you agree this is one of the nicest-smelling flowers in the garden, and appreciate it as I do. Thanks for the good tips on making them happy.

  13. Layanee says:

    This plant has a majesty about it don’t you think? The smell is sweet and the bees seem to love it. I need to go sniff mine. Thanks for the reminder.

  14. margaret says:

    @Layanee: Yes, majesty is a great word. And you are exactly right about the bees. They seem to be drunk with it over here, in fact. Party bees.

  15. margaret says:

    Welcome, Liisa. So glad that the scent pleases you as much as it does me in my northern garden. Good to “meet” you; do come again.

  16. Liisa Wihman says:

    I love your comments about not caring how plants are named – I also loved Cimicifuga racemosa “Brunette”, now Actea simplex “Brunette” in my garden i Stockholm. It really is the nearest thing to Gardenias in gardens so far North… Taking in the fragrance in late summer evenings is just magical!

  17. margaret says:

    Welcome, Steve, to A Way to Garden. If they look healthy and lush, you are on your way. That’s what mine did…and then they colonized. I think water them in dry spells (though I don’t any longer) and that’s about it. Now as for nicotiana, it’s the opposite: Plant it once and you have a lifetime supply…easy, enthusiastic and enduring. One of the self-sowns I really appreciate.

  18. Steve Zick says:

    This is such a relief! My own plants are in their second (or is it their third?) summer here in my wooded garden in Evanston, IL, and although they are healthy and lush, no blooms yet…but now I’ll just hunker down and wait. In the meantime, I am relying on the nicotiana for evening fragrance, and it is not letting me down!

  19. rjleaman says:

    It took me so long to learn to pronounce ‘Cimicifuga’ – at this point they could rename that gorgeous thing ‘Fred’ and I wouldn’t change what I call it!

    Gorgeous blog & garden, by the way… I must go away now and wallow in flower envy.

  20. My family and I were camping in Watrton National Park last summer and I swear we saw this plant everywhere! It would have been in the last two weeks of June. Does that sound right? I don’t remember a scent, though. Can I plant this and have it do well in Northern (drier) Alberta?

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Alana. The species Cimicifuga racemosa is native to the US and Canada, so I bet that’s what you saw. I don’t think it likes a super-dry spot as it’s a native woodlander, but I would ask a local nursery.

  21. Liz grey says:

    Dear Margaret
    Thanks s much again for introducing me to terrific plants After searching for 2 years and using cimicifuga/actae/ bugbane iames in my requests a nurseries I finally have found both Brunette and Black Negligee” and they have beautiful dark leaves nd I’m ever so proud of them and still keeping myf ingers crossed for flowers. Without your dvice my gardenwould be so—ordinary ! You are a treasure!
    PS I loved your book, bought it for friends and persuaded my local library to add it to their collection. Bravo!

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