Astrantias are one of the star plants of our summer borders, flowering from late spring until late autumn, with a short break in mid-summer. Astrantias have been grown in British gardens since Tudor times. They are natives of central and eastern Europe, growing on heavy damp soil on woodland margins and in meadowland. In the garden they like a well-drained soil that remains moist, and will grow in sun, partial shade and shade. The red-flowering Astrantias are less vigorous and improve with regular division and in well-nourished leaf soil. Astrantias attract bees and other beneficial insects. As an added bonus, they are resistant to attacks from slugs and snails.
Astrantias are members of the Apiaceae family and are umbellifers with a difference. The enclosing involucre of bracts is enlarged to form a ruff, which frames the central umbel of large flowers. They self-seed easily and deadheading after the first flush encourages a second flowering. The exception to this is A. maxima.
There are two main species. The principle species is A. major and has been much selected and hybridised. A. major has white flowers often tinged with pink, and the underside of the flowerhead is a bright green. The leaves are mid-green. A. major subsp involucrata ‘Shaggy’ (AGM) was grown by Margery Fish in her garden at East Lambrook Manor. It has long white bracts with green tips which are shaggy. The original stock of A. major rosea was also propagated by Margery Fish, and has pale pink flowers.
A. major ‘Sunningdale Variegated’ (AGM) is grown for its early spring foliage which is light-green with cream/yellow variegation. The leaves turn mid-green when the stems of white flowers appear. It does best in a sunny position. The variegation of A. ‘Star of Magic’ persists throughout the season. The flowers are pink-red and sterile.
A. major has given rise to a number of dark flowered species, whose colours range from blood red to deep purple and near black. These include A. major ‘Rubra’ which is one of the easiest red- flowered variety to grow, and has pure, deep-maroon flowers and dark green leaves. A. major ‘Ruby Wedding’ is slower to multiply, but when fully established produces dark ruby-red flowers on red stems with reddish, deep-green leaves. A. major ‘Gill Richardson Group’ bears umbels of tiny crimson-red flowers surrounded by prominent red-tipped bracts above dark-green leaves in summer.
The second species is A. maxima (AGM) and is easily distinguishable as it has a three lobed leaf. The flower bracts are also fused, unlike other forms, creating a flower that looks like a small bowl in a lovely soft shell-pink colour. It flowers later than A. major. It increases by runners, not by forming clumps. It will tolerate a drier soil, but ideally prefers a moisture-retentive soil in dappled shade where it will make really large plants quickly.
This species has not produced the same impressive quantity of offspring as has A. major, but there is a deep pink variety called A. maxima ‘Mark Fenwick’. The dark red A. maxima ‘Hadspen Blood’ and deep pink A. ‘Roma’ AGM are thought to be hybrids between the two species. Another hybrid is A. ‘Buckland’ which has flowers with pink centres, and white and green bracts. It is sterile, but repeat flowers.
Plants to combine with astrantias:
- Anemone ‘Wild Swan’
- Anthriscus sylvestris ‘Ravenswing’
- Cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum’
- Gillenia trifoliata
- Persicaria amplexicaulis
- Lysimachia atropurpurea
- Melica altissima
- Sambucus nigra
The National Collection of Astrantias is held by Dr Andrew Ward of Norwell Nurseries.
Page image: Astrantia major subsp. involucrata ‘Shaggy’ AGM (Image courtesy of HPS image library)