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Amazing Astilbe
by Lesley Reynolds
by Lesley Reynolds

email: lreynolds@saltspring.com

Lesley Reynolds is a freelance garden writer who was born in England and emigrated to Regina as a child. Lesley has always loved plants and the natural environment and has gardened in Saskatchewan and Alberta for over 20 years, spending most of that time in Calgary. For the past seven years, Lesley has been working with her friend and writing partner Liesbeth Leatherbarrow and they have several best-selling gardening books to their credit.

In August 2001, Lesley moved with her family to Salt Spring Island, British Columbia. She is enjoying learning how to garden on the west coast and is busy planning a brand new garden.


June 24, 2007

I’ve been doing a lot of shopping for perennials lately and I’ve found that at every nursery I visit, several new astilbes seem to find their way into my cart. It’s hard to resist their gorgeous, fernlike foliage and feathery plumes of tiny white, cream, pink, lavender, red, magenta, or salmon flowers.

The botanical name Astilbe is a misnomer, if ever there was one. Originating from two Greek words: a (without) and stilbos (brilliance)—without brilliance—it probably describes the dull flowers and leaves of some native species. However, when it comes to lighting up serene, green shade gardens, most astilbe hybrids absolutely glow, adding welcome splashes of colour. Uniformly hardy and long-lived, cultivars vary so widely in height, plume shape, bloom period, and colour that a perfect one can be found for every garden circumstance. Although some catalogues list astilbes as hardy to Zone 4 or even higher, most of them do perfectly well in prairie gardens, providing their cultural needs are met.

Astilbes are characterized by showy plumes of red, magenta, pink, lavender, salmon, and white flowers that float airily above clumps of deeply divided, toothed, and often glossy foliage that forms a tidy and slowly spreading clump. The flower plumes eventually develop small dry fruits containing abundant seeds that disperse when the fruit splits open. Astilbe hybrids and cultivars abound, making choices difficult for gardeners.

Best known are the Astilbe x arendsii hybrids. ‘Fanal’ is a particularly fine cultivar, with its delicate plumes of tiny, dark crimson red flowers that appear on 60-cm stems in early to midsummer. The foliage of ‘Fanal’ and most other red-flowering astilbes emerges from the ground a dark bronze-green in early spring, transforming to pure green during the growing season. ‘Erika’ is another standout, with flowers reaching to 90 cm, mahogany red stems and pale pink flowers. ‘Cattleya’ is one of the largest astilbes, with bright orchid pink flowers that can reach 1.2 m. Other A. x arendsii hybrids include ‘Bressingham Beauty’ (rose pink), ‘White Gloria’ (creamy white), ‘Glow’ (intense red), or ‘Hyacinth’ (lilac). Astilbe japonica also blooms in early summer, growing to 60 cm. ‘Queen of Holland’ (white), and ‘Washington’ (white) have lovely bronzy foliage.

Other astilbe hybrids are late season bloomers. Astilbe chinensis can be short (less than 50 cm) like ‘Pumila’ (lavender purple), ‘Veronica Klose’ (red-purple), and ‘Visions’ (raspberry red), or tall (up to 90 cm) like ‘Purpurkerze’ (reddish purple). Astilbe simplicifolia hybrids grow to 45 cm and are ideal for small spaces. ‘Sprite’ with its soft pink flowers and dark green, glossy foliage was the Perennial Plant Association’s 1994 plant of the year; ‘Darwin’s Snow Sprite’ only reaches to 30 cm and has fluffy white flower plumes and neat mounds of deep green foliage. Astilbe thunbergii hybrids have large flower plumes reaching to 90 cm. ‘Professor van der Wielen’ is a favourite white-flowered cultivar.

Check out your local nurseries for these and other wonderful astilbes. If you need to look further afield, The Perennial Garden, in Maple Ridge, BC, has an excellent selection of astilbes (including some lesser-known species) in their 2002 catalogue. Their web site is at www.perennialgardener.com.

Avoid planting astilbes against exposed, south- or west-facing fences, walls, and foundations, since sunlight reflected from these surfaces will scorch the foliage. Plant astilbes with their woody crown at ground level in very fertile, moist, well drained soil. Because they are shallowly rooted, their crowns become exposed above ground level over time. When this happens, cover them lightly with a mixture of soil and compost, or divide clumps and replant them with their crowns back at soil level.

The key to health for astilbes is providing sufficient moisture; keep them well watered and mulched at all times to prevent drying or the leaves will quickly become crisp, curl, and turn brown. If you maintain adequate moisture levels, astilbes will tolerate full sun, but are happier with a few hours of morning sun or light shade.

Astilbes stand up well to wind and rain, and require no staking. Deadheading does not encourage a second flush of bloom so instead of removing dried flower stalks, leave them be until spring to provide year-round interest in the garden. Divide astilbes every three to four years in the spring or fall to maintain their vigour and encourage profuse blooming. Named astilbe cultivars will not grow true from seed and must be divided to propagate.

Astilbes can be planted singly as accent plants or grouped in the middle of lightly shaded borders. They are also at home in woodland gardens or naturalized by a pond or damp creekside. Plant small varieties in rock gardens or at the front of flower beds.

Astilbes look lovely in the company of bold-leaved, shade-loving pulmonaria, hosta, bergenia, ferns, and bleeding hearts (Dicentra spp.). They are also excellent companions for hardy bulbs, effectively disguising their dying foliage.

 

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