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Astilbe are native to the Far East and North America.Their common names, False Goatsbeard and False Spirea, gives you an idea of their flower forms. Their plume-shaped, colorful flowers stand above the ferny foliage and dance in the breeze.
I often see wild Astilbe growing in abandoned fields, especially in moist clay soils. Their biggest attributes are their hardiness, low maintenance, and ability to flower freely in shady conditions, producing colorful, long lasting blooms. No wonder astilbe has become such a darling of the perennial flower garden.
Astilbe varieties took a giant leap forward through the breeding work of the German scientist, George Arends. He crossed species of Asian and North American astilbes by collecting the dust-like seeds, and specialized in getting this hard-to-germinate seed to grow. These hybrids increased the number of flower forms, colors and plant sizes dramatically, making this wild plant an attractive option in the formal flower garden. You'll often see his name associated with many astilbe varieties.
While astilbes are mainstays of shade and woodland gardens, they can also be grown in a variety of other locations in your landscape. Astilbe makes excellent pond-side plants, spreading and providing habitat for dragonflies and hummingbirds. Plant them where the soil stays moderately moist, but not where the waters will inundate the plants. Some varieties, such as 'Darwin's Surprise', grow less than 1 foot tall, making them good candidates as ground covers in shady locations.
Astilbe can also be grown under tall deciduous trees such as maple and oak. However, because of their need for soil moisture, they may not thrive in these locations as they try to compete with the trees' root systems for water. They make a better transition plant.
Plant astilbe to create a visual change from a cultivated landscape and lawn to the forest. Plant them along the forest edge to provide height and color. In this area, they will have less competition from tree roots for water and nutrients. The flowers look like steeples dancing in the wind, while the ferny foliage adds a green backdrop. Since deer seem to ignore astilbe, they make a nice planting in these semi-wild areas where deer are likely to roam.
In the shade garden, astilbe pairs well with common shade plants, such as hosta, fern and ligularia (yellow rocket). However, it is versatile enough to grow with iris, peony, salvia and other sun-loving perennials too - especially in locations where it doesn't get so hot and the soil can be kept moderately moist.
In northern gardens, astilbe can be seen blooming with asters and sedums in late summer. It's best to choose mid to late-season astilbe varieties if you want to pair them with these perennials. Look for 'Cattleya' (rose), 'Visions' (pink) and 'Bridal Veil' (white). Astilbe makes a great addition to a butterfly and bee garden for its long-lasting flowers.
Where ever you grow astilbe, it looks most dramatic when planted en masse. Look to plant at least 3 to 5 plants and let them naturally spread. Select similar height varieties to provide a solid block of astilbe. Mix and match flower colors or plant a block of the same color to provide a dramatic visual effect. Look for varieties that will bloom at the same time. Some of the best-colored varieties include 'Fanfare' (red), 'Amethyst' (lavender), 'Deutschland' (white), and 'Finale' (pink), and 'Peach Blossom' (peach-pink).
Another approach is to plant a bed with ground cover types, medium-sized varieties and tall varieties. Gradually increase the height of the planting with various sized varieties of astilbe. There is enough variation and variety selection to make a whole astilbe garden if you desire. Start with a low-growing variety, such as 'Love and Pride'. Then increase the height with a 2 to 3 foot-tall selection, such as 'Superba'. Finally provide a 4 to 5-foot tall backdrop with a variety such as 'Pumila'. You'll create a wall of astilbe that you, your neighbors, butterflies, bees and hummingbirds will love.
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In the garden, deadheading (trimming off spent blooms from) ground cover types may be tedious, but does lead to a neater appearance. Deadheading taller varieties in a formal flower garden allows the attention to be drawn to other flowers with the astilbe dark green foliage being the backdrop. The ferny-green foliage will provide a lush cover in front of a flower border. In a woodland or massed shade planting, leave the flowers to dry naturally on the plant, and allow seed heads to form. This will give a dramatic visual for fall and into winter.
In either case, come fall, cut astilbe foliage to the ground, but don't necessarily compost it all. The spent flower and seed heads make for an interesting addition to your fall flower indoor arrangements. Tuck them in next to panicle hydrangea, rudbeckia and aster flowers from the garden.
About the Author: Charlie Nardozzi is a nationally recognized garden speaker, author, consultant, radio and TV show host. He delights in making gardening information simple, easy, fun and accessible to everyone. Visit his website, GardeningwithCharlie.com for info.
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