Astilbes are probably one of the most beloved of all plants in the garden, certainly here in North America. I find I rarely come across a garden that doesn't have a mass of them lurking in the underbrush. They are shade tolerant, aren't prone to disease and seem impervious to the many ways we abuse plants. They're ironclad.
That said, I've only come to like astilbes in the past few years. Their overexposure always brought out the snob in me. But new forms have been released by plant breeders and what glories they are.
In recent years, I've planted A. x arendsii 'Color Flash,' which has bright green foliage that matures into a deep purple. Though its soft pink blooms are attractive, the deeply lobed fern-like leaves look even better without the blooms. A. simplicifolia 'Hennie Graafland,' on the other hand, has neon pink plumes that are absolutely riotous and a pleasure to see as they rise up over dark green foliage. They bloom all of July, require little or no care and can even survive soggy soil and little sunlight.
My latest experiment is with 'Chocolate Shogun,' which is quite unlike any of the other new cultivars. For one thing, it blooms much later and has the palest of pale pink flowers and silky, textured foliage in a luscious purple-black hue. You could add this to a black garden with impunity.
Plant it in moist soil and add lots of mulch around the plant to keep the moisture close.
Astilbes can be used to hold up a slope. I like them in containers because they look superb with Ipomea 'Blackie' dripping over the sides, along with something fluffy like a variegated Papyrus 'Baby Tut.' A small group of astilbes look great, but think about combining them a few at a time with other plants rather than having a mass of them. Used in the right spot, astilbes can be one of the highlights of a summer garden. Just don't turn them into a cliché.
Get Astilbe 'Chocolate Shogun' at garden centres such as John's Garden Centre in Uxbridge, Ont., where it costs $14.