This year will see more changes in the garden while earlier plantings seem to be making decent growth and giving a decent show. The bearded iris have finally settled down and daylilies and peonies, bought as small plant by post, are making some headway and no longer causing me sleepless nights over whether they will survive or not.
Another plant that is making me feel happy right now is astrantia (or astrantias). I planted the first early in the garden’s development and have added more over the past two years.
Astrantias are hardy herbaceous plants in the Apiaceae – the carrot family. The family relationship is not as obvious as with other ‘umbellifers’ because the little dome of flowers is surrounded by long bracts, usually the same colour as the tiny flowers. Astrantias, named after their star-like flowerheads, are European and there are several species, all obviously astrantias, but only two are common in cultivation. Astrantia major is the most common, with flowers that are typically pinkish, greenish or almost white but the most popular and most modern cultivars are in deep pink to red. The most famous of all, named for its longer-than-normal bracts is ‘Shaggy’. The other species is A. maxima which is a better pink but is not quite as compact as a plant and does spread a bit more by a slightly running rootstock. But neither are spreaders so don’t be alarmed. Astrantia major is a great, tough, hardy plant and the stems are also wonderful for cutting.
They are at their peak now but if you cut back the old flower stems they will produce more. The leaves are bold and not unattractive and the flowers are held well above them. There is a variegated form too (‘Sunningdale Variegated’) but be careful not to site it in dry soil or it will scorch nastily. Astrantias will grow in sun or part shade and never need staking, making them perfect for low-maintenance borders.
These cottage-garden favourites are associated with the late, great Margery fish so it seems fitting to quote her*
‘The Masterworts or astrantias are unspectacular plants that belong to the same family as the carrot. They have an old world charm and are often found in cottage gardens.
‘Quite indestructible and with pleasant foliage they blend happily with any society in which the find themselves. One old country name is Hattie’s pincushion, and the flowers do look somewhat like pincushions…None of the astrantias are very distinct in colour and that, I suppose, is the reason for another old country name – Melancholy Gentleman.
‘A very interesting and unusual variation of Astrantia major is found in cottage gardens in parts of Gloucestershire. The bracts are pale green, about three times as long as n the normal type and very shaggy. I have never been able ot find any name for this truly decorative flower, nor does it appear to be included in any dictionary. I have been given a plant and I hope it will increase and seed itself as generously as ordinary Astrantia major does.’
And that is where Astrantia major subspecies involucrata ‘Margery Fish (syn ‘Shaggy’) comes from.
*Cottage Garden Plants 1961