The Story of Marwood’s Astilbe Collection

Next month we will be heading to RHS Hampton Court Garden Festival (Monday 4th to Sunday 10th July) we will be exhibiting a magnificent display of flowering Astilbes, with the intention of spreading awareness, telling the story of our National Collection of Astilbes, and hopefully we will sell a few plants along the way.

It is no small feat and has taken many months of hard work and preparation, with staff and volunteers alike involved with the set-up, preparation and running of the plant stall, during the show. It is only the second time in our history we have exhibited our Astilbes at such a large and prestigious event.

At Marwood Hill Garden, we are well renowned for our National Collection of Astilbes and anyone visiting would surely agree the Astilbes look astounding when in full flower. Visitors are in awe when they turn the corner from the middle lake and are met with the scene of a soft pink and white haze of fluffy flowerheads. We proudly boast that it is one of the largest collections of Astilbes in the world, and in our plant sales area we sell a good many of them, many incredibly rare and some which are not sold anywhere elsewhere within Europe. Our collection include over 200 different species and cultivars and it is still growing.

The Astilbe National Collection can be found in a flat grassy area in the heart of the garden, planted in three large beds between two lakes and by the stream. The planted area covers roughly the size a tennis court. The plants benefit from moist soil and (except for needing to be divided every 5-6 years to encourage flowering) and occasional weeding they are very low maintenance plant.

The collection was first established 30 years ago, in 1990 as a result of a chance visit from the then director of Plant Heritage. Plant Heritage is a charity responsible for the conservation of cultivated plants, which is especially important as the plant is no longer being commercially grown. Initially there were only 10 Astilbes cultivars planted in garden, however Malcolm Pharoah (former MHG head gardener) quickly spotted that expanding the collection would enhance the garden. Astilbes are native of wet water meadows and steam sides in Japan, China and Korea, so naturally suit Marwood’s wet valley bottom conditions. They are relatively pest free, don’t suffer from frost damage and the lakeside location shows the plants off to their best. Astilbes flower from Mid-June until early September but look at their best between during July which is a wonderful introduction to the summer colours as the spring candelabra colours fade. Astilbes can grow in a range of soil types and contrary to popular belief many Astilbes will fare well in drier and shadier conditions than first thought. So don’t despair there will be a suitable Astilbe for your garden.

To expand the collection at Marwood Hill Garden, Malcolm worked closely together with Henry Noblett (late director of Holehird gardens and the then Astilbe national collection holder). Their aim was to collect and grow all species and cultivars, still existing in the world today. Together, they travelled to Holland and Germany to seek out “lost” cultivars. They successfully grew the collection, making specialist Astilbe contacts, in both Latvia and Russia.

Malcolm has tirelessly dedicated himself to the propagation, care and promotion of Astilbes and his commitment has certainly paid off. The MHG team are incredibly proud to say Malcolm was awarded the Plant Heritage, prestigious Brickell Award in 2020. Next month’s flower show also coincides well with the fact that Malcolm will be celebrating 50 years at Marwood later this year - and what a way to celebrate!