The next big wave of summer color is breaking over the local landscape now, splashing through gardens and public plantings with oceans of purples, hot pinks and lavenders; the Astilbes are here. Foamy whites edge beds of deep red or rose as the unmistakable aroma of the ostrich plume-like flowers turns heads and alert nostrils.
Ferny leaves, unimpressive until now, have swollen into dominance as feathery spikes of tiny flowers transform green spaces into moving, shifting flows of transcendent hues. The earliest blooms started a couple of weeks ago, with dark red Fanal and creamy white Gladstone, then every few days another variety opens and the spectrum fills.
These tough little performers are native to European woodlands. Hundreds of years of breeding for color and shape have taken small bright pink wildflowers into this majestic array of tones and textures. The progression from earliest to latest parallels the increase in height. Earliest blooming forms are shortest, foliage reaching six to eight inches and blooms a foot tall. Later-blooming ones like brilliant purple Amethyst are waist high, and the season-ending ostrich plume forms are so tall they bend over under their own weight.
Many local gardens use Astilbes as late summer groundcover, spreading effervescence through shady alder woods. The effect of the added layer of brilliance is as if the whole landscape is being lit up from below. Planting various types together extends bloom time towards the whole month of August.
Fitting seasons of flower together into a yearlong pattern of shifting sizes, types and colors is aided by this undemanding species. They emerge from the ground while spring daffodils are in full show; reddish clumps of foliage looking ever so much like Goatsbeard, but holding so much more promise. The leaves make a skirt of frills below nodding narcissus and tulips, and as spring flowers fade and droop they are submerged by the wave of expanding Astilbes.
Lilies are often planted along with other bulbs, even though their bloom time is so much later. The various types of lilies space themselves through late summer. Asiatic oranges and golds are followed by the creamy, fragrant Madonnas. They both precede Astilbes, so having their lower stems covered by the fern-like layer makes the blooming clusters appear as if they float in another sea of greenery.
The spectacular Oriental Lilies are still a month away when Astilbe is in color, so the fading blooms have time to subside and turn brown before the huge, heavy textured flowers open. The buds, which grow for weeks before they open, are already swelling as the foamy pinks and purples wash around them. They promise one of the ultimate gardening pleasures, and in so doing prolong the pleasure of the maturing summer.
Oriental Lilies call us to harvest them for home decoration or as memorable gifts. Wading through Astilbe beds cutting lily stems feels like bathing in the ocean of time; late-flowering types still show fading hues of purples and pinks, earlier ones have gone sere and gold, and the lilys prodigious buds on powerful bamboo-like stalks hold the future in their slender, pointed shells.
These useful garden workers are also used to disguise weedier areas of the woodland edge, their segmented leaves overlay one another, scattering shadows and light in a shifting pattern that breaks up clear views of what lies below. Who cares if buttercup or horsetail lurks down there; if they cant be seen, they wont bother anybody. Chickweed or clover, Red-topped Sheep Sorrel or Annual Bluegrass, big bold Astilbe covers them and lets them fade away.
Most of these weeds are of no concern earlier in the year, so using Astilbes to back up spring blooming primroses and Rockcress works well. The leafy period of their cycle looks just fine under the fernlike leaves and when they return in glory Astilbes are still dormant. Planting them closely encourages the cornucopia effect that we all strive for in our ornamental plantings, the feeling of abundance and opulence that layers of plantings provides.
The life cycle and production methods of these local favorites encourage their use in this way too. They come as dormant roots in the early spring, along with Bleeding Hearts, Daylilies, irises and peonies. Planting full-grown Astilbe plants when they are in bloom is delightful, but to get the full carpet effect means disturbing other plants. Planning ahead and using roots allows much smaller holes to be dug, and the cost per plant is much less too.
David Lendrum is a master gardener and owner of Landscape Alaska. Any responses or questions can be sent to www.landscapealaska.com.