Astrantia plants have fabulous timing because they flower in May, before most perennials have even budded up. They catch the softness of spring because each subtle flower head is enclosed by a ring of neat bracts. One of their common names is Hattie's pincushion and that describes the arrangement perfectly. There are lots of tiny flowers held in the centre and these individual flowers are highly attractive to hoverflies and small wasps. Hoverfly larvae are very adept at cleaning up aphids, so astrantias are often planted close to roses. Beauty and pest control in one place!
Astrantias are umbellifers and members of the cow parsley family and they've been grown in British gardens since the 17th century, for decorative and medicinal reasons. The 17th century writer William Cole mentions Astrantia major in The Art of Simpling published in 1656. This ‘mighty plant’ (as he called it) enabled anybody who wore it round their neck to ward off evil spirits and become more powerful. Their old English name, masterwort, reflected their magical reputation. Astrantias also go by the name 'Hatti's pincushion'.
When to plant astrantias
It’s best to buy well-grown astrantia plants, preferably in flower, so that you can see what you’re getting, so it's best to buy and plant your astrantia in spring.
Where to plant astrantias
Dappled shade is ideal for astrantias, and some varieties are tolerant of light shade, particularly white astrantias with streaked green bracts.
Astrantias need fertile soil to do well. The deep-red ones are the thirstiest and the paler ones, like ‘Buckland’, will survive in drier places.
Dark red astrantias need careful placing because they can look sombre. They also need fertile soil to perform well and, although the main flush of deep red flower occurs in May, these repeat flowers will throw out a few flowers in September as well - if happy. The red varieties of astrantia also grow happily in clay soil and wet, waterlogged soil.
How to plant astrantias
Astrantias are easy, hardy herbaceous perennial plants, but they tend to prefer moist soil. Dig a hole large enough for the root ball of your plant and dig in some compost – dark red astrantias in particular need fertile soil to perform well. Place your astrantia back in the hole and fill it, then water in well.
Make sure it doesn't dry out while it is getting established. Mulch to preserve moisture.
What to plant with astrantias
In recent years astrantias have taken centre stage, because they are often used in show gardens at the Chelsea Flower Show. Dark red astrantias have been teamed with blue salvias to create a Persian carpet affect in several gardens and it’s a good colour combination. More reliable partners include Geranium ‘Orion’ and Nepeta ‘Summer Magic’ because these will reliably overlap in the garden setting.
Some astrantias are tolerant of light shade, particularly white astrantias with streaked green bracts. These mix well with hardy native ferns, such as polystichums, adiantums and polpodiums, along with May-flowering ‘Spring Green’ tulips. The iconic cottage gardener, Margery Fish (1892 – 1969), named one of her green-washed white astrantias ‘Shaggy’ because the bracts had jagged edges that twisted at the tips. The central flower was extremely large, between two and 3 inches across.
This highly desirable astrantia is still sold under ‘Shaggy’, although it may not be the original. If you acquire one, it takes time to produce its enormous top flowers and may look quite ordinary for the first two or three years. Margery Fish gardened at East Lambrook Manor in Somerset, a county that enjoys good rainfall, and she was the first person to really appreciate these dainty plants. She saw the plant she eventually named ‘Shaggy’ growing in cottage gardens in Gloucestershire and fell in love with it.
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Astrantia can be planted by roses to help keep aphids away. The small flowers of the astrantia attract hoverflies, whose larvae eat aphids.
When do astrantias flower?
Astrantia flowering time varies depending on variety, but they usually start blooming in May. Some will continue flowering over the summer while others repeat flower in September. They're a good flower for the June gap.
It's always best to deadhead astrantias after the flowers turn brown and unsightly, because many tend to self-seed enthusiastically. Their offspring tend to be inferior in form and it's quite possible to lose a choice, named astrantia to one of its less-worthy children should you allow nature to take its course.
How to divide astrantias
Astrantias have a tendency to get woody at the base in time. If this happens, they should be divided in early spring (March to early April) just as they’re getting going.
Dig up your plant and, using your hands or a shovel, carefully split your astrantia root ball in half.
Replant straight back into the ground and water well. If you don't have space to replant the divided section it can be potted up.
Astrantia species and varieties
There are only three species of astrantia, A. major, A. maxima and A .minor. Margery Fish’s ‘Shaggy’ is a selected form of A. major subsp. involucrate and most of the red forms are closely related. There is a hellebore-leaved species, A. maxima, which has a creeping habit and the neatest candy-pink flowers, held on erect stems. Most astrantia flowers nod gently, not a bad thing because this allows you to see the green or pink veining on the backs of the bracts.
A. maxima, rarely grown in gardens, needs extremely good soil to thrive but is tolerant of more shade. A. minor has a head of smaller white flowers and one stem could fill a vase. Named forms are often hybrids between these closely related species. Some of these hybrids are sterile and this is good news for the gardener for there are no unwanted seedlings, and sterile flowers last for much longer.
‘Buckland’, found in the Devon village of the same name, has pale pink flowers throughout summer. This astrantia is tolerant of drier conditions and it looks almost translucent on a summer’s day.
In recent years more astrantias have been named, mostly spontaneous seedlings. The hardest ones to place are the very dark, almost black to maroon ones. They tend to have smaller flowers that merge into the soil.
Good varieties of astrantia
Astrantia ‘Moulin Rouge’
Perhaps the darkest astrantia of all. Place it carefully or the flowers will disappear into the background. It has a tendency to produce small flowers.
A better plant than ‘Hadspen Blood’, because the flowers are a clearer claret-red throughout. Dark stems and dark foliage add to its appeal.
Astrantia ‘Gill Richardson’
Another dark red named for a gardener based near Bourne in Lincolnshire. It will set seeds and some seedlings will be green-leaved, but a good strong plant. Best deadheaded.
A multiheaded, white astrantia that performs very well in semi shade and fairly bright light. Very good in a woodland border because it extends the flowering season into May, following on from most woodlanders. Part of a Star series.
Green-tipped white bracts that bloom in the summer. Shaggy can take a few years to really get going so it is recommended for patient gardeners.
Astrantia ‘Roma’ AGM
‘Roma’, a vigorous candy-pink astrantia, was a sterile seedling from ‘Ruby Wedding’. It was named and selected by Piet Oudolf in the 1990s and it’s mainly micro-propagated. It’s often used in prairie planting because the strong pink picks up the colour of dusky pink echinaceas and asters. It needs good soil to do well, but it's highly desirable because it flowers for such a long period and it always re-blooms in September. There are no seedlings to worry about.
Astrantia ‘Penny’s Pink’
A relatively new astrantia with clear-pink flowers and bracts touched with green. Loved by flower arrangers and the best pink and green astrantia because it isn’t wishy washy.
This is the longest flowering astrantia and the one to grow in drier conditions. It’s a strong, sterile hybrid from a Devon village of Buckland. Thought to be a seedling between the pink-flowered hellebore-leaved astrantia (A. maxima) and A. major, it was discovered by Keith and Rose Wiley at The Garden House in Buckland Monachorum in Devon. The pale-pink flowers are touched in pale-green. 90cm/ 3ft
The most beguiling of all in damp semi-shade, although it must be left alone because it does run about from place to place. Candy-pink flowers and bracts that look as though they’ve been dried.
Best astrantia for shade
Astrantia originated in woodlands so they do well in dappled shade, and some can perform well in semi-shade, but as a general rule red astrantia need more sunlight, while pale and white varieties are happy in a bit of shade. Soft pink Astrantia maxima prefers damp shade, but it does require very good soil. White astrantias 'Superstar' and 'Shaggy' are both happy in shady areas, as long as the soil doesn't dry out. Mulch to help keep the soil moist.
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