National Collection of Astilbe

The Marwood Hill Gardens Astilbe Collection – by Malcolm Pharoah

The National Collection was started in 1990, several years after Plant Heritage or as it was known then NCCPG (National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens) was formed in 1978. The main role of NCCPG was to form National Collections of groups of plants throughout the country and so conserve the vast range of cultivars and species of a genus which were and still are being lost due to the lack of availability in garden centres.

I was first aware of Astilbes when I was a student at RHS garden Wisley in 1970-1972 and taking the two year Diploma course in Horticulture there. At that time one of the activities was to help at the shows produced by the RHS. One was the Chelsea Flower Show which was and still is the most famous flower show in the world with international exhibits from many countries. One exhibitor was a firm called Bees of Chester who had a large display of herbaceous plants. I can still visualise after 40 years the spectacular splash of colour their stand displayed but the overwhelming sight was rows of superb coloured forms of Astilbes. Their colours merging with each other to create a sight I don’t think I will ever see again.

After I finished my two years at Wisley, I came to work at Marwood Hill Gardens near Barnstaple in North Devon. Dr James Smart, the owner, had recently started creating the garden in a valley with a natural stream running through the middle and had made two, eventually three lakes. It was a young garden but already had an impressive collection of trees and shrubs and some herbaceous plants including about eight Astilbes. The growing conditions for Astilbes are ideal at Marwood with a clay soil which holds on to nutrients and moisture. Rainfall is plentiful with no threat of droughts.

Between 1972 and 1990 the garden increased in size from 8 to 18 acres (8 hectares) and with it the number of visitors, as the garden is open every day of the week from March to the end of October. During this period the number and range of plants increased including Astilbes, several of which were purchased from the nursery of Bees of Chester (now unfortunately not in existence. Like many good nurseries they have closed down due to retirement, competition from garden centres or various other reasons.)

In 1989 we were approached by Graham Pattison, who was collections organiser with Plant Heritage, with a view to starting a National Collection of Astilbes. He said at the time that another man was also forming a National Collection in Cumbria in the north west of England at the Lakeland Horticultural Societies garden at Holehird near Lake Windermere.

I eventually met Henry Noblett and since the formation of the two collections we have helped each other with information and exchanging plants. We have been on trips abroad to Holland and Germany to see nurseries and other collections and have been lucky to collect several Astilbes which were thought to be lost to cultivation. Both collections are similar although conditions are different.

Since Henry Noblett stood down in the running of the collection at Holehird, John Ashley has taken over as well as being registrar for Astilbes worldwide.

The most serious problem encountered by far has been the incorrect naming of plants. Many Astilbes on sale and in public gardens are wrongly named. The problem is widespread and not confined to Britain. It makes sensible discussion about individual plants difficult because it is not known if the plants are the same. It can also be expensive. Plants bought out of flower early in the year flower months later at the wrong height and in the wrong colour. This was experienced quite early on in the life of the collection and repeated over and over again.

Devon’s National Collection

Devon’s National Collection of Astilbe is held at Marwood Hill Gardens in North Devon. Working very closely with the Lakeland Horticultural Society, who hold the other national collection, our aim is to be able to collect and grow all species and cultivars which still exist in the world today.

At present we have over 120 forms and are hopeful that we shall be able to increase this by another 20-30.

We have established contact in various countries with people who have an interest in growing Astilbes and who have collections of them. One lady in Latvia has several of the Arends cultivars which were lost both in his nursery and throughout Europe during the Second World War. These together with ones obtained from Russia, Holland, Germany and America have increased the collection in recent years.

Most of the collection is planted in the gardens around the sides of the lakes and stream at Marwood  Hill and these produce an impressive splash of colour from late May to September.

Growing Astilbe

Astilbes in the wild are natives of wet meadows and stream sides so take naturally to bog gardens and areas with an adequate supply of moisture. However they are quite suitable for any beds or borders provided they are mulched or water is provided in dry spells.

A well manured area is beneficial to them and they will produce a vigorous plant in these conditions. We have found that it is best to plant them shallow rather than bury the crowns in the ground and also to lift them after a number of years and divide them otherwise they loose their vigour.

The forms of Astilbe simplicifolia and Astilbe chinensis appear to withstand drier soil conditions better then the taller hybrids. These simplicifolia and chinensis forms are dwarf growing (18ins to 30ins) so are ideal for the front of border. Another group, the  x crispa hybrids are even more dwarf in form and have bronze foliage.

Georg Arends

A history of Astilbe

The first Astilbe to come to this country was the species japonica from Japan in the late 1800s. Several more species were introduced although these were all white flowered forms, and it wasn’t until the pink flowered species of davidii was introduced from China that any breeding work got underway.

In the early 1900s, Georg Arends who ran a nursery in North Germany started to cross these species and raised many seedlings which showed characteristics from their parents but which were superior. He sold many of these to Holland but kept crossing the species and their progeny until he raised plants which were much more vigorous and distinct. He selected the best and gave them cultivar (variety) names. The first two to be named  and distributed  were ‘Queen Alexander’ and ‘Peach Blossom’ which are still in commerce today.

At this time the Astilbe were grown for forcing and used as pot plants indoors, so Arends’ early work was aimed at producing dwarf plants with many short spikes of flower.  Arends continued to raise new named cultivars until the beginning of the First World War and many of these are still available today. The more he raised the better the colour and vigour of the cultivars became until he had a wide range of coloured forms from white to pale lilac and purple to brilliant rose and carmine, as well as feathery, narrow and broad spiked plants.

Around this same time Lemoine in Nancy, France was also hybridising a range of Astilbe. Sadly very few are left today, the best being ‘Mont Blanc’ which is a good white cultivar.

After the 1914-1918 war, Arends continued his breeding work and during the 1920s and 30s produced and released many of the named forms that we grow today. His best and most popular cultivar was released in 1933 and this he named ‘Fanal’ and it is still the most popular Astilbe to this day as it is dwarf in habit and deep in colour. In 1940 he selected a very bright red form which he called ‘Feuer’ or ‘Fire’.  Although he introduced a few more cultivars in later years most of his work had been completed but he continued to hybridise many different plants and run his nursery until his death in the 1950s. His nursery is now run by his grand-daughter.

Another nursery which has produced some notable cultivars over the years is run by the Ruys family at Dedemsvaart in Holland. They developed a range of tall, long stalked cultivars in their rich, moist soil but these need constant moisture to reach their full potential. They were responsible for cultivars such as ‘Professor van der Weilen’, ‘Moerheim’ and ‘Ostrich Plume’ which have increased the range and height of Astilbe.

Modern themes

Several other people have introduced new cultivars although on a smaller scale.

The East Anglian nursery of Blooms of Bressingham have in recent years offered some new forms of which Bressingham Beauty is a good pink and Snowdrift a dwarf growing white. Recently some new good forms have been raised in Holland. The  van Veen family have introduced dwarfer growing types of which ‘Flamingo’,  ‘Ellie’, and the Visions forms are the best. Also a grower has released several forms with have musical the themes to their names such as ‘Rock and Roll’ and ‘Jump and Jive’ and his newer forms have golden foliage which has given a new dimension to Astilbe. Two of these are ‘Diamonds and Pearls’ and ‘Milk and Honey’.