Astilbe japonica. Photo by: Gabriela Beres / Shutterstock.

Move over, ferns and hostas. Astilbe is the new must-have plant for shady garden plots, adding color, height and texture that breaks up the boredom of one-dimensional groundcovers and mounded plants.

“Astilbes are wonderful, virtually indispensable garden perennials,” says garden essayist Allen Lacy, in his book The Gardener's Eye, commenting on how their “steeples and spikes” impart the vertical pizazz needed in every garden.

With hundreds of cultivars available, they also give gardeners a wide range of options in height and bloom time; from the early-blooming 'Rheinland', which opens its fluffy cotton-candy pink spires along with bleeding hearts in May, to the dwarf Chinese astilbe, which blooms in late summer with lovely lilac plumes. “There is so much variation among astilbes that I can conceive of a pleasing garden consisting of few perennials other than hostas and astilbes,” Lacy remarks.

On this page: The Basics | Grow Your Own | Care and Maintenance | Popular Astible Varieties | Plant Sources

THE BASICS

Common names:

False goat's beard, false spirea, florist’s spirea

Plant type:

An herbaceous perennial that spreads via underground rhizomes.

Zones:

3-9 depending on variety

Exposure:

Best in partial shade to shade

Bloom time:

Astilbes are typically classified as early, mid, or late season bloomers, depending on the species and cultivar. Early blooming varieties emerge in spring, while late bloomers hold off until July or August. Because the bloom times vary widely, you can combine plants from each category for an ever-blooming garden from May through September.

Length of bloom:

4 to 6 weeks

Height:

8 inches to 4 feet

Characteristics:

Astilbes provide year-round interest, beginning with their foliage in early spring and ending with dried feathery plumes and seedheads in winter. In between, these showy perennials are some of the best plants for summer color, displaying delicately fragrant bottlebrush-shaped blooms in colors ranging from creamy white and soft pink to deep purple and crimson red. Astilbe flower clusters range in size from 6 inches to 2 feet in length, depending on the species or cultivar. Even when not in bloom, their deeply-cut leaves remain attractive all season and are often enhanced by tones of bronze or burgundy. Some have especially eye-catching foliage in shades such as bright chartreuse, chocolate, and russet red.

Common types:

Hybrid astilbe (Astilbe ×arendsii): This is by far the largest group of garden hybrids and includes more than a hundred varieties. Most are early-season bloomers, emerging in late spring or early summer.

Chinese astilbe (Astilbe chinensis): These fast-spreading, rhizomatous plants are often used as groundcovers. They bloom later than the arendsii hybrids and are more drought and heat tolerant.

Japanese astilbe (Astilbe japonica): An early-to-mid summer bloomer with dense, pyramidal flower plumes.

Star astilbe (Astilbe simplicifolia): A slow-growing, compact plant with shiny leaves and delicate starlike flowers. Like A. chinensis, it blooms late in the season.

GROW YOUR OWN

When to plant:

In spring after the threat of severe frost has passed, or in early-to-mid fall.

Where to plant:

Best grown in partial shade to shade, tolerating filtered sun. However, they will grow well in full sun in northern zones. “Their best use, however, may be in light shade, since they provide a bright splash of color to banish gloom.” In warm southern regions, plant astilbes in partial to full shade to prevent scorching of the leaves.

Soil:

All astilbes, even the more drought-tolerant varieties, prefer cool, moist soil rich in organic matter. Keep the soil evenly damp but not soggy, especially during the winter when plants are dormant. Avoid planting in heavy clay soils and sites with poor drainage. If necessary, amend the soil with compost or organic matter to improve structure and moisture retention.

How to plant:

They can be grown from root divisions, nursery-grown plants or seeds, but you’ll have better success planting divisions or potted plants because astilbe seeds have a tendency to rot in the ground before they germinate. Place the crown of the plant about an inch below the soil surface, and fan or spread out the roots to encourage new root growth. Space plants at least 16 inches apart to allow ample growing room for the attractive foliage.

Using in the garden:

Good companions for astilbes include other moisture-loving, shade-tolerant plants such as small ferns, hostas, lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis), Siberian iris (Iris sibirica), lungwort (Pulmonaria) Siberian bugloss (Brunnera macrophylla), and variegated Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum odoratum 'Variegatum').

CARE AND MAINTENANCE

Water and fertilizer requirements:

Astilbes are thirsty plants and heavy feeders during the growing season. Keep your plant well watered, especially during the heat of the summer. A one-time application of a timed-release granular fertilizer before flowering begins in spring should be enough to satisfy their appetite. Early-flowering astilbe varieties form buds in the autumn for the next season’s flowers, so fertilizing these plants again in October with a high-nitrogen fertilizer will help to stimulate bud formation the following spring.

Mulching:

To help preserve soil moisture, keep them well mulched with leaf mold, compost or another type of organic material. (Learn about the best types of mulch to apply.) If you notice that the root crowns are rising above the soil, gently press them back into the ground before top dressing.

Dividing:

To keep astilbes vigorous, divide clumps every three or four years in early spring, using a sharp knife to cut through the heavy, fleshy roots. Separate the clumps into three or four pieces, each with at least one eye.

Pruning:

Don’t bother deadheading because your efforts will not encourage repeat blooming. Leave the flowers and seedheads to dry on the plant for winter interest, or cut the flower heads when fresh to add height and texture to indoor arrangements. If the foliage shrivels and browns after a prolonged period of drought, it can be cut back to the ground to promote regrowth of new foliage later in the season or the following spring.

Pests and problems:

Rarely bothered by diseases or insects, including the pesky garden slugs that typically nosh on plants grown in a moist environment.

Other:

Deer and rabbit resistant.

POPULAR VARIETIES

Swipe to view slides

Photo by: Walters Gardens, Inc.

Astilbe 'Rheinland'Buy now on Amazon

One of the earliest to bloom, ‘Rheinland’ often emerges along with bleeding hearts and columbines in late spring, displaying feathery spires of bright pink flowers held on reddish stems. The deeply cut, glossy green foliage looks good all season and is often tinged with bronze when young.

Zones:

4-9

Height and Spread:

1 ½ to 2 feet

Bloom season:

Late spring to early summer

Photo by: Rock Giguère / Millette Photomedia.

Astilbe 'Chocolate Shogun'

If you love Heuchera ‘Chocolate Ruffles’, you’ll be equally enamored by this new dark-leaved astilbe. It features similar chocolate-maroon foliage that maintains its color throughout the summer and provides a rich contrast to the clouds of pale-pink flowers. This adaptable cultivar is also more sun and drought tolerant than most.

Zones:

4-8

Height:

2 feet

Spread:

1 to 1 ½ feet

Bloom season:

Early to midsummer

Photo by: guentermanaus / Shutterstock.com.

Astilbe chinensis var. pumila (dwarf Chinese astilbe)

When the flowers of others fade, pumila assumes the mantle, carpeting the garden from late summer through fall with shin-high lilac-pink spires. It is the only one that is stoloniferous, spreading by underground stems to create a dense groundcover of glossy, dark green leaves.

Zones:

4-9

Height:

8 to 10 inches

Spread:

1 to 2 feet

Bloom season:

Late summer to early fall

Photo by: AliScha / Shutterstock.com.

Astilbe ×arendsii 'Fanal'Buy now from Nature Hills Nursery

‘Fanal' has been cultivated since 1933, yet is still considered one of the best red choices, displaying densely packed plumes of deep crimson flowers held above mahogany-red foliage. The foliage turns dark green with reddish overtones as the summer progresses.

Zones:

3-8

Height and Spread:

1 to 2 feet

Bloom season:

Early to midsummer

Photo by: Mona Larochelle / Millette Photomedia.

Astilbe ×arendsii Color Flash®

This striking variety is coveted for the beautiful foliage, which changes color throughout the season, emerging bright green then acquiring rich burgundy and purple tones as it matures. In fall, the color palette shifts again to shades of gold, orange and russet. Light pink flowers on burgundy stems enhance the colorful foliage in early summer.

Zones:

4-8

Height and Spread:

12 to 18 inches

Bloom season:

Late spring to early summer

Photo by: Tim Ludwig / Millette Photomedia.

Astilbe chinensis 'Visions'

This compact cultivar blooms most heavily in mid to late July, providing floral interest after the early-blooming A. arendsii hybrids are finished and before ‘Pumila’ gets started. The shorter stature is well-suited for containers and massed plantings at the front of the border, where the fragrant raspberry-pink plumes can be most appreciated.

Zones:

4-8

Height:

12 to 18 inches

Spread:

12 to 18 inches

Bloom season:

Midsummer

Photo by: Rock Giguère / Millette Photomedia.

Astilbe simplicifolia 'Sprite'

One of the best varieties for use as a groundcover, ‘Sprite’ illuminates shady garden floors with airy clusters of soft pink flowers rising above compact mounds of glossy bronze-tinged foliage. The characteristic star-shaped blooms appear in July and continue into August, but the deeply lobed foliage remains attractive all season.

Zones:

4-9

Height:

8 to 15 inches

Spread:

2 feet

Bloom season:

Midsummer

Photo by: Walters Gardens, Inc.

Astilbe chinensis ‘Amber Moon’

What sets ‘Amber Moon’ apart from others is the sunny chartreuse-yellow foliage that brightens up the shade garden in spring, especially when used as a vibrant counterpart to blue-leafed hostas, purple heuchera, silvery pulmonaria, and Astilbe ‘Chocolate Shogun’. The delicate, lacy leaves are tinged with red and turn darker green by midsummer, about the same time the plant’s blush-red stems emerge bearing masses of rosy pink flowers.

Zones:

4-9

Height:

3 feet

Spread:

2 feet

Bloom season:

Midsummer to early fall

Photo by: Walters Gardens, Inc.

Astilbe 'Delft Lace' Buy now from Breck's

'Delft Lace' is a symphony of color that continues to crescendo as the plant matures, starting with the emergence of silvery blue-green leaves in spring followed in summer by bright-red stems holding sprays of soft apricot-pink flowers. After the long season of bloom has passed, the lacy foliage turns a rich burgundy, and deep red seed panicles develop to extend the season of interest through winter.

Zones:

4-9

Height:

2 to 3 feet

Spread:

1 to 2 feet

Bloom season:

Early summer

Photo by: Sylvain Marineau / Millette Photomedia.

Astilbe ×arendsii 'Bridal Veil' Buy now from Amazon

Simple and elegant, ‘Bridal Veil’ graces the garden with frothy ivory white plumes arching above mounds of glossy dark-green foliage. As the flowers fade, they gradually turn a creamy yellow. Beautiful planted on its own or paired with other colors. Also try A. Japonica 'Deutschland', another variety with pure white flowers borne on 2-foot stems in late June. Both varieties are great additions to a moonlight garden.

Zones:

4-8

Height:

28 inches

Spread:

12 to 18 inches

Bloom season:

Early to midsummer

Photo by: Tim Ludwig / Millette Photomedia.

Astilbe chinensis var. taquetii 'Superba'

This is the one to plant if your shade garden is crying out for a bold vertical accent. The tallest of the genus, it grows up to 4 feet, bearing large panicles of magenta flowers on strong, thick stems that require no staking. Distinctive jagged-edged leaves emerge in a mahogany-red hue, turning deep green as they mature.

Zones:

4-8

Height:

4 feet

Spread:

1 to 2 feet

Bloom season:

Late summer to fall

Photo by: Walters Gardens, Inc.

Astilbe ×arendsii 'Bressingham Beauty'

One of the best for the cutting garden, with striking salmon-pink flowers on gracefully arching plumes. The deeply cut leaves show off burgundy tones in spring, becoming dark green later in the season. For a more compact salmon-colored astilbe hardy to zone 3, try ‘Younique Salmon’, a prolific bloomer under 2 feet tall.

Zones:

4-8

Height:

3 feet

Spread:

2 feet

Bloom season:

Early to midsummer

For a more drought-tolerant alternative with a similar look, try 'Chantilly Lace' goatsbeard. Hardy in Zones 3-7, for part shade to shade locations, and grows to 32 inches.

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