Great Companion Plants For a Cottage Garden: Astrantia

Astrantias at Arley Hall

First, What is a companion plant?

Plant society members often think of their ‘pet’ plants as the stars of any border: flowering perennials, shrubs, trees and climbing plants that are guaranteed to turn heads. Think of peonies, roses, hydrangeas, day lilies, dahlias, delphiniums, hollyhocks, or even topiary as in the picture of Arley Hall, above.

Companion plants are the ones with more of a supportive role. They are chosen to complement the feature plants, contrasting or harmonising with them, in colour, texture or form. I can’t imagine a traditional herbaceous border without companions to fill in the gaps and create a harmonious  tapestry. While companions add to the richness and diversity of the garden, they will not compete too aggressively for the limelight or for resources such as food, water or space. They create a healthier ecosystem by attracting beneficial insects.

Many of my favourite companion plants are long-flowering, allowing the garden to transition seamlessly from one season to another. You might have overlooked every one of the companion plants I’ll be highlighting in this short series of posts, but I believe they’re worth their moment in the spotlight.

Astrantia (masterwort)

Red astrantia

Astrantias are such useful, trouble-free companion plants that you’d be hard pressed to find a major English garden without them. Masses of small umbels are held airily on wiry stems like a profusion of stars, as their Latin name suggests. The intricate, lacey flowers are encircled by papery bracts of varying lengths. 

Masterwort, the common name, hints at its use in traditional medicine. Other folk names include Hattie’s pincushion and Gentleman’s melancholy. I get the pincushion reference but am puzzled by the latter. They always seem cheerful to me – but perhaps that’s because I’m not a gentleman.

Astrantia with Knifophia

Astrantia, shown here forming a backdrop to knifophia, is a bullet-proof choice for the mild, moist English climate, but gardeners in more extreme climates should note that it can be finicky. It is happiest in humus-rich soil in dappled shade, and doesn’t like to dry out completely or to endure a succession of very hot nights. I sympathise!

Luckily, it’s one of those communicative plants that wilts in a theatrical fashion, signalling its distress with such a clear SOS that even a half-attentive gardener can’t help but notice and take action. A prompt and liberal application of H2O is usually all it takes to set the droopiest-looking plant to rights.

Pink astrantia

Astrantia is a community spirited plant. During its long flowering season, this clump-forming perennial can usually be seen entertaining at least one insect, and more often, a buzzing party of pollinators. Rarely the star of the border despite its many charms, it will gradually fill the space allotted to it without appearing hell-bent on smothering its neighbours. It’s easily divided in late autumn or winter if you need to maintain a little balance – or would like more clumps to spread around the garden and to pass along to friends.

As with most repeat-flowering plants, any time you invest in trimming back the spent flowers  will repay you by stimulating new flowers; keeping the plants looking neat and helping to prevent a profusion of seedlings from springing up. If you prefer a low-maintence garden, it’s fine to leave them to their own devices during the summer as many gardeners do, trimming the foliage back in winter or spring.

Astrantia mixed colours

Astrantia major and Astrantia maxima hybridise readily and the seedlings vary. The richest colours and most unusual plants are propagated by division. Some of my favourite cultivars include the dark-flowered ‘Ruby Wedding’ and ‘Hadspen Blood’; ‘Roma’, a pink; and ‘Shaggy’ an ivory with attractive, green-streaked bracts. If you like variegated plants, check out Astrantia major ‘Sunningdale Variegated’ which has heavily cream splashed leaves.

New cultivars such as ‘Ruby Star’ have been appearing to rave reviews, though I note a few of the other recent releases have garnered the less effusive ‘it looks much the same as the others to me’ type of comment from some of their reviewers. My view is that you won’t go far wrong with any astrantia if they will grow in your climate and you like the overall look. For advice about caring for astrantia and a useful comparison of varieties, take a look at the Dorset Perennials website.

Astrantias at Harlow Carr

While astrantias on their own might not light your fire, they mingle so readily with other plants that I can’t imagine there are many major English gardens without a few tucked here and there. They make a good choice for cutting gardens too – I love the way they help give a bouquet of flowers that freshly cut from the garden character.

Astrantia in a perennial border

For gardens in partial or dappled shade, where the sun-loving prima donnas sulk and underperform, astrantias may well become the stars, adding a splash of welcome colour. And it was wonderful to see claret-red astrantias sparking like jewels in full sun in Piet Oudolf’s naturalistic planting of grasses, seed heads and flowering perennials at Scampston Hall this weekend (see below).

Astrantia at Scampston Hall Gardens

In the war many English gardeners wage against plain old soil, they’re a potent weapon. They have all  the qualities of the perfect companion plant. They’re pretty enough on their own terms and happy to mingle in, above or below showier plants. The pictures were taken at Arley Hall and Gardens, Gresgarth Hall, Harlow Carr Garden, Hidcote Manor Garden, The Saville Garden and Scampston Hall Gardens: that’s quite some recommendation!

This is number 1 in an occasional series I’m planning about my favourite companion plants. If you have your own favourites, please feel free to share them below.

37 thoughts on “Great Companion Plants For a Cottage Garden: Astrantia

  1. Murtagh's Meadow says:

    Great informative post. I will certainly look out for them. Are they easy to grow from seed?

  2. solsdottir says:

    This might seem obvious, but to me blue geraniums are good with pretty much anything. I’m very fond of alchemilla mollis or lady’s mantle as well.
    I do love astrantias, though. My favourite planting of them that I’ve seen was the greeny-white Shaggy with the white woodland aster. Understated and beautiful.

    • susurrus says:

      I’d agree – hardy geraniums would be my choice if I was only allowed one! Alchemilla mollis is always interesting to photograph because of its habit of holding on to the dew. I’ll always see it as a companion that will take over, if allowed. I’ve spent so much time weeding out unwanted seedlings in my youth. I’ve met several people who are devoted to it, but they are people who employ gardeners!

    • susurrus says:

      We all have unaccountable failures – we’d not be gardeners otherwise. I’m bad at keeping roses alive – or rather, I can keep them alive, but they steadily become an embarrassment. I make do with admiring other people’s!

  3. Oddment says:

    What a wonderful post! There is such an exactness in your writing that it is a joy to read; I’m beginning to suspect you are part plant. You caught me a couple places, though, where I was forced to laugh out loud. Of astrantia I knew nothing, and in that first grouping above, I was stunned by the crystalline aspect of that one bloom full-faced in the middle. Spectacular. And I love the folk names! But I was also taken by the tiara atop the gate at Arley Hall. Every garden should have one. Thank you!

  4. kate@barnhouse says:

    Great photos! Thanks for showing how effective such dainty flowers can be if used in complementary drifts. Singletons, though pretty in their own right, often get lost in borders ….

    • susurrus says:

      You’re right. If we visitors understood how many plants it takes to make a magnificent clump, let alone a drift, we’d often be surprised.

  5. Heyjude says:

    They are very pretty, but do you know if they are slug and snail resistant? I’d love to grow some in my garden as they look very natural, but I am trying to stick with plants that can survive the pesky munching beasties as I am fed up of finding my plants eaten.

    • susurrus says:

      I can’t imagine they would be resistant, sorry! I don’t associate astrantias with slug and snail marks (as I do hostas, etc) but I’d be surprised if any self-respecting snail would turn up its nose if it found a tasty-looking astrantia in its path. The foliage at the bottom on an established plant or clump will create a pretty thick cover, so perhaps that hides a multitude of sins (or in this case, nibbles).

  6. composerinthegarden says:

    I love Astrantia – it does well in my harsher North American garden and you did a superb profile on it. I just got Roma, I’m looking forward to seeing it bloom next year. Wonderful photos too!

    • susurrus says:

      That’s good to know. It often feels strange to write about plants knowing that WordPress readers are so widely spread out around the world and that what grows all around England might never or rarely be seen in some countries. I suppose that’s part of what we all enjoy – a glimpse of things or places we might never see otherwise.

  7. bittster says:

    Beautiful post that’s a joy to read! I just wish this plant didn’t just curl up and die in my garden. Dry spells, hot nights, heavy soil. I guess I now see why 😉
    Many of my companion plants find their own way in, I’m far too disorganized to plan these things out. Fennel and verbena bonariensis are most accommodating with their self seeding and I love them for it!

    • susurrus says:

      Those are lovely self seeders to have. The idea of plants finding their way in reminds me of some making their way out. An old cobbled road called Donkey Brew leads up and over the local moor into a right of way that runs between fields. There is no trace of a house but you can still see a few plants that have made their way out of what once must have been its garden. I love seeing geranium phaeum, fuchsia and crocosmia quite at home amongst the wild flowers and grasses.

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