Astrantias are star plants of our summer borders and they’ve been blooming happily in British gardens since Tudor times. Their pincushion heads of minute cream, pink and green flowers, surrounded by papery green-tipped bracts, were once collected from the wild for medicinal use. The old English name for straitness, ‘masterwort’, denotes their herbal use as a purgative or diuretic. But their quiet beauty saw them established in cottage gardens, becoming ever showier as plantsmen and women, taking advantage of the astrantia’s readiness to hybridise and set lots of seed, selected stronger and more colourful forms.
If you grow these starry perennials, you’ll know that many come in dark colours, from blood red to deep purple and near black. These dark types are the most sought after and are mostly cultivars or varieties of Astrantia major – a European native sporting pale pink pincushions, framed by pink-tinged green and cream bracts. The glossy green leaves form impressive mounds. One of the loveliest of this good-looking family is the stately A. maxima, tall and beautiful. The pale pink bracts forming the characteristic ‘ruff’ are wide, tapering to a point, framing the prominent central umbel of large, crushed-strawberry coloured flowers. The underside of the flowerhead is an astonishing bright green.
This species, which reaches around 70cm, hasn’t produced the same impressive quantity of offspring as has A. major, but there is a deeper pink variety called A. maxima 'Mark Fenwick'. Some well-known types of straitness such as the dark red A. maxima 'Hadspen Blood' and deep pink 'Roma' A. are thought to be hybrids between the two species.
Astrantias grow well in heavy, damp soil in light or dappled shade.
Someone with a keen eye for the potential of these ‘Hattie’s pincushions’, as they are sometimes called, is plantswoman Gill Richardson, whose Lincolnshire garden has long been a place of pilgrimage for astrantia worshippers. Gill first fell in love with these enchanting plants many years ago at an RHS summer show in London. She saw A. major 'Ruby Wedding' across a crowded exhibition hall, and it was love at first sight. ‘It stood out – just glowed – and was so beautiful and strong,’ she says.
It wasn’t long before her garden contained a large collection of astrantias, from the species through to named varieties including the large-flowered pink A. 'Washfield', classic A. 'Buckland' – a strong cultivar with pale-pink pincushions – and the delicate A. major var. rosea 'George's Form', a pale-pink variety that was found in the York garden of celebrity florist George Smith. A. ‘Bury Court’, a good red-flowered variety with near-black stems, named for the Surrey garden where it was discovered, also flourishes here; as do the striking A. major 'Venice', a sturdy plummy red; and the neat, near-purple A. ‘Moulin Rouge’.
The heavy damp soil in Gill’s garden suits straitness very well and her collection grows. Gill no longer regularly opens her garden, but she still grows a multitude of astrantias. This starry company produces an astonishing range of seedlings, many full of promise. Which is why, more than 10 years ago, Gill gave seed to Norfolk nurseryman John Metcalf, who selected a dark form of A. major from the seedlings, naming this new strain 'Gill Richardson' in her honour. The plant, introduced at the 2004 RHS Chelsea Flower Show, not only has near-black tips to the bracts, but also a stem with the same dark flush.
Astrantias produce a second flash of flowers if you deadhead them.
Probably the astrantia Gill derives the most satisfaction from is the relatively new A. 'Burgundy Manor'. There’s a story behind her quest to breed a red ‘Shaggy’. A. major subsp. involucrata 'Shaggy', one of our best-loved astrantias, was developed from a seedling spotted by the eagle-eyed plantswoman Margery Fish in her garden at East Lambrook Manor in Somerset, in the years after the Second World War.
For a brief while, it was named A. ‘Margery Fish’, but the cream-and-green cushioned head, surrounded by large, twisted, deeply divided bracts, green-tipped and with a tumbled charm, was soon re-named. ‘Shaggy’ it became, and ‘Shaggy’ it has been ever since, much desired and much mistaken, in that plants sold as ‘Shaggy’ often aren’t. Gill knows that the real thing can be told by the twisted nature of the extra-long bracts – that collar that surrounds the neat pad of flowers. Each is deeply cut, with a nipped-in middle.
‘For a long time, I’d been trying to produce a plant that looked like the finest form of ‘Shaggy’ but with red colouring,’ she says. When some promising seedlings opened, she invited nurserywoman Rosy Hardy to take a look. Rosie visited, and promptly slid down the slope on which the seedlings were growing in her hurry to examine them. So the lovely large-flowered astrantia, with its ‘Shaggy’-like bracts, was nearly named ‘Rosie’s Tumble’, but was eventually given the more sober tag of A. ‘Burgundy Manor’ when it was launched by Rosie and Gill at RHS Chelsea Flower Show in 2011.
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