A History of Astilbes

The first Astilbe to come to this country was the species japonica from Japan in the late 1800s. Several more species were introduced although these were all white flowered forms, and it wasn’t until the pink flowered species of davidii was introduced from China that any breeding work got underway.

georg arends
Georg Arends

In the early 1900s, Georg Arends who ran a nursery in North Germany started to cross these species and raised many seedlings which showed characteristics from their parents but which were superior. He sold many of these to Holland but kept crossing the species and their progeny until he raised plants which were much more vigorous and distinct. He selected the best and gave them cultivar (variety) names. The first two to be named  and distributed  were 'Queen Alexander' and 'Peach Blossom' which are still in commerce today.

At this time the Astilbe were grown for forcing and used as pot plants indoors, so Arends' early work was aimed at producing dwarf plants with many short spikes of flower.  Arends continued to raise new named cultivars until the beginning of the First World War and many of these are still available today. The more he raised the better the colour and vigour of the cultivars became until he had a wide range of coloured forms from white to pale lilac and purple to brilliant rose and carmine, as well as feathery, narrow and broad spiked plants.

Around this same time Lemoine in Nancy, France was also hybridising a range of Astilbe. Sadly very few are left today, the best being 'Mont Blanc' which is a good white cultivar.

After the 1914-1918 war, Arends continued his breeding work and during the 1920s and 30s produced and released many of the named forms that we grow today. His best and most popular cultivar was released in 1933 and this he named 'Fanal' and it is still the most popular Astilbe to this day as it is dwarf in habit and deep in colour. In 1940 he selected a very bright red form which he called 'Feuer' or 'Fire'.  Although he introduced a few more cultivars in later years most of his work had been completed but he continued to hybridise many different plants and run his nursery until his death in the 1950s. His nursery is now run by his grand-daughter.

Another nursery which has produced some notable cultivars over the years is run by the Ruys family at Dedemsvaart in Holland. They developed a range of tall, long stalked cultivars in their rich, moist soil but these need constant moisture to reach their full potential. They were responsible for cultivars such as 'Professor van der Weilen', 'Moerheim' and 'Ostrich Plume' which have increased the range and height of Astilbe.

Modern themes

Several other people have introduced new cultivars although on a smaller scale.

The East Anglian nursery of Blooms of Bressingham have in recent years offered some new forms of which ‘Bressingham Beauty’ is a good pink and ‘Snowdrift’ a dwarf growing white. Recently some new good forms have been raised in Holland. The  van Veen family have introduced dwarfer growing types of which 'Flamingo',  'Ellie', and the Visions forms are the best. Also a grower has released several forms with have musical the themes to their names such as 'Rock and Roll' and 'Jump and Jive' and his newer forms have golden foliage which has given a new dimension to Astilbe. Two of these are 'Diamonds and Pearls' and 'Milk and Honey'.