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Ask Mr. Smarty Plants is a free service provided by the staff and volunteers at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

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Thursday - January 24, 2013

From: Pittsburgh, PA
Region: Mid-Atlantic
Topic: Diseases and Disorders, Poisonous Plants
Title: Bugbane Leaf Blotch
Answered by: Anne Van Nest

QUESTION:

My bugbanes (Cimicifuga/Actaea) seem to suffer from black blotches on the leaves in the summer. This happens even when they have adequate moisture. I also see it on the ones growing wild. Is this a fungal problem or some kind of cultural issue?

ANSWER:

Bugbanes are a great native plant and are now in the Actaea genus (formerly Cimicifuga). You didn’t say which Actaea you have, but I haven’t met one of these dramatic textural plants that I don’t like, so you probably have several kinds – Actaea elata (tall bugbane), or white fruiting, yet very poisonous, Actaea pachypoda (dolls eyes), to the popular Actaea racemosa var. racemosa (black cohosh) that has the dramatic vertical white candles of flowers, and the red fruited but also poisonous, Actaea rubra (red baneberry).

These perennial plants, with their upright wands of fragrant flowers that attract bees and other pollinators are great plants for a shady, moist woodland garden. Two of the native species have very attractive red (Actaea rubra) or white (Actaea pachypoda) marble-like fruits in the summer and fall.

Prized for their architectural boldness, bugbanes are also favored for being easy to grow and having few serious insect or disease problems. They prefer humusy, moisture-retentive, mulched soils in a site that is protected from strong, drying winds. Although generally problem-free, there are a few problems that could be causing your leaf blotches.  Dark spots on the leaves of your bugbanes could be caused by leaf spot diseases, anthracnose fungus, summer scorch (dead and browning leaf margins) or tarnished plant bug sucking damage (brown sting marks).  These potential causes all have different visual signs that can be used to help narrow down the root cause of your problem.  By looking at the location, size, extent and color of each of these leaf problems, you should be able to rule out some of them.

Possible leaf blotch causes:

Leaf spot diseases: medium-sized, dark brown or black rounded areas of dying leaf tissue, often between the leaf veins and frequently along leaf margin. Not symmetrical. The University of Maine has some online images of the Ascochyta sp. leaf spot fungus on bugbanes.  Other references to Ascochyta actaeae leaf spot fungus on Cimicifuga (in PA and NY) can be found on page 201 in the Diseases and Pests of Ornamental Plants by Pascal P. Pirone (1978 John Wiley & Sons Publisher) and on page 618 in Westcott’s Plant Disease Handbook by Cynthia Westcott and Ralph Kenneth Horst (2001 Springer Publisher). Bruce Watt of the University of Maine has put a photograph of Ascochyta fungi on a black cohosh leaf online for easy comparison.

 Anthracnose fungus disease: large, irregular brown or black patches of dying leaf tissue.

Summer scorch: brown, drying, dying leaf tissue progressing from the leaf margins inward, somewhat symmetrical. A physiological/cultural problem.

Tarnished plant bug: small brown sting marks, deformed stems, wilting new growth.

In diagnosing your bugbane leaf blotch problem, one of the key clues is the fact that your bugbane is having the same problem as others growing wild in your region. This would suggest that it is an environmental problem instead of a fungal or insect attack. It is unlikely that a fungus or insect attack would be so prevalent that it would cover such a broad area. More likely, it is an environmental situation since the weather does manifest itself widely and would affect numerous plants.  To help protect your bugbanes from future drought causing leaf scorch, amend your soil with humusy, organic, moisture-retentative soils and mulch the plants well. Shredded leaves or leaf mold would be ideal as a nutritious mulch to conserve soil moisture. Also take a look at the amount of direct sunlight your plants are receiving. Bugbanes prefer part shade to full shade.

The Missouri Botanical Garden, on their plant finder website, say that black cohosh (Actaea racemosa (syn. Cimicifuga racemosa)) leaf margins may brown up (scorch) and growth may slow down if soils are not kept consistently moist.  They also say that it is easily grown in average, medium moisture soils in part shade to full shade. It prefers humusy, organically rich, moisture-retentive soils. The foliage tends to scorch and otherwise depreciate if soils are allowed to dry out. It is best sited in locations sheltered from strong winds. This is a slow-to-establish plant.

Additional cultural information for black cohosh can be found on the Cornell University Growing Guide website.

 

From the Image Gallery


Black cohosh
Actaea racemosa var. racemosa

White baneberry
Actaea pachypoda

Red baneberry
Actaea rubra

Red baneberry
Actaea rubra ssp. arguta

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