Blooming from spring to fall, astrantias are sophisticated additions to any garden
by CAROL KLEIN photography by JONATHAN BUCKLEY
THERE ARE FEW PLANTS THAT GIVE SO MUCH to the garden picture for as long a time as astrantias do. Stalwarts through and through, they nonetheless exhibit a versatility and brio that might be unexpected from such a dependable plant. Hearty clumps of rich green palmate leaves provide a solid base for the branching stems of bracted flowers. Not only are there plenty of flowers, they are long lasting, too—but it is their papery bracts that make the biggest contribution to the garden show.
The first flowers start to appear in May, and even without deadheading they bloom continuously through late fall. Each flower head consists of a circle of bracteoles that look like petals at first sight. From their center springs a congregation of the tiny true flowers suspended on quivering stems. This construction gives the plant one of its numerous vernacular names—Hattie’s pincushion. Once the flowers have been pollinated, the bracts remain to protect the swelling seed. If flowers are left in place, the forthcoming seeds sit in the papery chalice awaiting a gust of wind to disperse them. Most astrantias are inveterate self-seeders and colonies soon develop around a parent plant.
ALL IN THE FAMILY
Astrantias belong to the family Apiaceae (syn. Umbelliferae), but neither foliage nor flowers fit our typical image of an umbel. European Eryngium species and some Bupleurum exhibit a similar flower head construction, but for the most part umbels have flat heads composed of numerous tiny flowers. A look at astrantia seeds, though, will soon reveal the relationship—their seeds are striated just as those of other members of the family are.
There are 10 species of Astrantia. The three main species we meet in our gardens, sounding a bit like the story of the three bears, are Astrantia minor, A. major, and A. maxima. Baby bear, A. minor, is a perfect miniature with a preference for shady places among rocks. It is best suited to alpine conditions. The bracts are relatively small and the whole inflorescence is dainty and fairylike.
Astrantia maxima loves deep, rich, fertile soil. Given these conditions it is not difficult to grow—but how many of us can provide such hospitality? If you are one of the lucky ones, you will be treated to spreading clumps of bright green, trifoliolate leaves bespangled with stars of rich pink. (The name Astrantia was most likely derived from aster, Latin for star). This is one of the most beautiful of all. The bracts are broad and pointed, and the nuance of green on their reverse, especially when they are new, takes the breath away.
The middle child, A. major, has the greatest horticultural interest and the most variations, with several subspecies classified separately. Native throughout central European woodland margins and damp meadows, A. major is happiest when grown in dappled shade or even out in the open, provided it receives adequate food and water. It dislikes dry conditions, and thin, poor soils impair its growth, especially in hot sun. Best results are obtained by adding humus-rich material at planting time and treating plants to additional nutrients in the form of an early spring topdressing of rotted muck or compost. An organic summer mulch is also beneficial.
THE MIDDLE CHILDREN
Astrantia major subsp. involucrata ‘Shaggy’ was a plant grown by the doyenne of English cottage gardening, Margery Fish, at East Lambrook Manor, England. Where it came from nobody knows; perhaps Mrs. Fish received it in exchange for a quarter of tea or a pat of butter in the rationing that followed the end of the Second World War. She was known to have acquired some of her best plants in this way. She had an eye for the best, and ‘Shaggy’ is no exception. It has very long, creamy, green-tipped bracts that are slightly waisted. Although its coloring is typical of the majority of A. major forms—giving rise to yet another common name for the species, melancholy gentleman—it is an outstanding plant, if you can get it. The true ‘Shaggy’ can only be passed down through vegetative propagation, but for many years seedlings have been sold as the real McCoy. Since self-sown seedlings are so numerous and can fast overtake their parents, it is easy to see how confusion can arise.
There is nothing intrinsically bad about growing on seedlings, provided they are selected and only the best ones kept, and that they do not masquerade as their ancestors. Many good new plants have come our way through this route. Astrantia major subsp. involucrata ‘Moira Reid’, for instance, has a bigger inflorescence than ‘Shaggy’ and an even more unkempt look to its pinkish bracts. (Most of these long-bracted plants with quiet green-and-white flowers are descended from A. major subsp. carinthiaca.)
Many of the rich crimson forms that have become so fashionable in recent years also started their lives in a seedbed and were selected by eagle-eyed plantspeople. Most of these luscious beauties are derived from A. major subsp. major, which in nature comes in shades of white, pink, or crimson. Astrantia major ‘Gill Richardson’ was chosen by its namesake as her best dark astrantia. (There is a rumor that she has selected a crimson form of ‘Shaggy’—I can’t wait.)
Another red-toned beauty, A. major ‘Ruby Wedding’ has flowers of a rich, warm reddish pink. It is a very dependable plant, and demand for it is so great that it is now produced in huge quantities by micropropagation. So too is A. major ‘Hadspen Blood’, a celebrated dark form raised by Sandra and Nori Pope. A surprising hybrid between A. major and A. maxima, ‘Hadspen Blood’ is a very good plant, taller than most and of almost somber coloring. At one time cultivars calling themselves A. major ‘Rosea’ and ‘Rubra’ were the only readily available variations on the green-and-white theme. These have been largely superseded by improved seed strains, such as ‘Claret’, and a multitude of new named selections.
At the Chelsea Flower Show 2004, our nursery, Glebe Cottage Plants, exhibited another dark crimson astrantia, ‘Glebe Cottage Crimson’. This selection has almost black stems and very dark leaves. Its dark crimson bracts are complemented by flowers with equally crimson stamens and anthers. It is a robust and very floriferous plant in our nursery bed in southwestern England, making healthy clumps about two feet by two feet.
Growing from Seed
Anyone can grow their own dark red astrantia from seed. All you need to produce dark-flowered seedlings are one or two good crimson-flowered parents. Each of the tiny flowers will set a seed, so one plant may produce hundreds. Take the seed just as it is ready to fall and surface sow it on loam-based seed compost, allowing enough room between seeds for each to grow. Cover with coarse sand and leave the trays or pots outside. A few cold nights should induce the seed to germinate. After they have been thus frozen, take some of the trays undercover, onto the greenhouse bench or a light win-dowsill. With hope, little cotyledon leaves will soon emerge, followed swiftly by the first true leaves. If this works, bring in the rest. Grow the seedlings on, pricking out individuals into module trays or small separate pots. These can either be potted on or, when they are big enough to survive the great outdoors, planted out. Select the seedlings with the best coloring and form.-C.K.
Each year there are more colors and sizes from which to choose. Astrantia major ‘Washfield’, a clear, deep pink, came from the now legendary British nursery of the same name, run by my heroine, Elizabeth Strangman. Astrantia major ‘Buckland’ has flower heads tinged with soft pink and arranged in a distinctive dome. Its star has been eclipsed by the introduction of A. major ‘Roma’ by Piet Oudolf. Everyone seems to agree that this is a plant exceptional for its rich pink flowers, reminiscent of those of A. maxima. It is sterile and seems to devote the energy it saves on making seeds to flowering profusely and growing extra strong.
According to the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (ICBN), the name of each family is derived from the name of a genus found within it, with the suffix -aceae tacked on the end. (For example, the maple family, Aceraceae, dervies its name from the genus Acer.)
But the replacement of some well-known family names with conforming, uniform ones is opposed by many, who argue that the old names better describe the family in question. It is a result of this furor that we have Article 18.5 of the ICBN. It allows for the conservation of eight family names, permitting them to be used as alternatives.
The eight (with their proposed uniform names and their common names) are the Compositae (Asteraceae; sunflower), Cruciferae (Brassicaceae; mustard), Graminae (Poaceae; grass), Guttiferae (Hypericaceae; St. John’s-wort), Labiatae (Lamiaceae; mint), Leguminosae (Fabaceae; pea), Palmae (Arecaceae; palm), and Umbelliferae (Apiaceae; carrot), of which Astrantia is a member,—Roger Swain, science editor
Although it is the flowers of A. major that excite us, there is one cultivar, A. major ‘Sunningdale Variegated’, that is grown primarily for its foliage. In the spring, its emerging foliage is boldly splashed with cream, making an eye-catching spectacle, particularly when it is grown alongside plants with dark foliage. Bronze-leaved Actaea, dark, feathery fennel, or Anthriscus sylvestris ‘Raven’s Wing’ all make ideal partners and add to the drama. Some gardeners marry crimson astrantias with these bronze-leaved plants, but I think this detracts from the overall effect—the two different dark colors cancel each other. Other plants with dark crimson leaves, however, tend to underline and intensify the richness of the crimson. Many of the ever-expanding range of heucheras from the Dan Heims stable are ideal in this context. If there is pale lemon nearby, perhaps in the shape of Aquilegia chrysantha, Trollius europeus, or Verbascum ‘Gainsborough’, or even the creamy white umbels of Orlaya grandiflora or Ammi majus, the coloring of the astrantias is made all the richer. Green-and-white astrantias go well with almost everything, but beware of placing very white or pale yellow flowers nearby. They tend to make the astrantia’s white look dingy and rob it of its subtle and interesting persona.
Clearly, astrantias are main players on the garden stage. They loom large in spring, summer, and fall, and without them, the garden is a much poorer production. H
For sources of plants featured in this article, turn to page 96.