Stand out from the rest with these distinctive colourful plants

Great British Life: Astilbes from the National Plant Collection at Marwood Hill Gardens. Photo:Rob DougallAstilbes from the National Plant Collection at Marwood Hill Gardens. Photo:Rob Dougall (Image: Photo:Rob Dougall)

In a palate of pinks and whites, undulating clouds of colour fill the beds that surround two large lakes in the valley at Marwood Hill Garden. Visit at any time in the summer months to see stunning borders of Astilbe, or false goatsbeard. Plumes of flowers emerge from a tapestry of foliage, some hug the edge of the borders, others reach up to an impressive 2m in height.

A little closer investigation will reveal that there are at least 200 cultivars of Astilbe in this one location. Discovering so many variants of the same plant family in one place is rare, and it makes Marwood unique.

Some of these Astilbe are so rare they can only be found here, others have been brought back from the verge of extinction and the tales of how they came to be growing in this North Devon garden are as remarkable as the plants themselves, involving Second World War bombing raids in Germany and a visit to Devon by a lady from Latvia.

It’s all down to the work of Malcolm Pharoah, a former head gardener at Marwood who still works on the site as a volunteer. Malcolm arrived in North Devon in 1972 to be head gardener for Marwood’s owner and creator Dr Jimmy Smart. The son of a miner from County Durham, Malcolm had started his gardening career in the local parks department before going on to horticultural college and eventually ending up on a diploma course at RHS Garden Wisley.

Great British Life: Malcolm Pharoah at Marwood. Photo: Catherine CourtenayMalcolm Pharoah at Marwood. Photo: Catherine Courtenay (Image: Photo: Catherine Courtenay)

He’d first come across Astilbe in the 1970s when, as a student, he was attending the Chelsea Flower Show. “I still remember one stand I saw by Bees of Chester, they had huge banks of Astilbe and I thought they were fantastic, I’d never seen anything like it before.”

Marwood had always had some Astilbe but, encouraged by the organiser of Plant Heritage, a charity set up to create National Collections of garden plants, Malcolm began to actively increase the collection around 30 years ago.

It was to lead him on a decades-long gardening adventure. He began by swapping plants with another Astilbe collector in Cumbria, then the two gardeners began travelling across Europe to track down and find rare varieties and cultivars. They visited a nursery in Germany, started in 1888 by a man called Georg Arends, who became globally recognised for breeding Astilbe.

When Malcolm visited the Arends nursery it was owned by his great granddaughter, and only had a fraction of the original cultivars, because most were lost in bombing raids in the Second World War.

Great British Life: Astilbes from the National Plant Collection at Marwood Hill Gardens. Photo:Rob DougallAstilbes from the National Plant Collection at Marwood Hill Gardens. Photo:Rob Dougall (Image: Photo:Rob Dougall)

However, some of these long-lost plants turned up after Malcolm was contacted by a woman in Latvia, who had visited the Arends nursery before the war and taken many of his cultivars back to the National Botanic Garden. When Latvia became independent in the early 1990s , she was able to contact Malcolm and ended up brining these plant treasures all the way to Devon.

“It was quite a culture shock for her coming over, but she ended up visiting about four or five times,“ says Malcolm. One of the cultivars she gave them was Astilbe ‘Opal’ and Marwood is the only place in Europe selling it today.

If no effort had been made three decades ago, then the majority of these plants would have been lost forever. It’s why National Collections are so important, says Malcolm. And there are stories associated with every cultivar - losing these plants means losing a history also, he says.

The many small nurseries in this country and abroad, which specialised in in particular plants have been disappearing fast. People now buy from garden centres and supermarkets, which tend to use a same wholesalers and so have only a fraction of the varieties available.

For Malcolm and other National Plant Collection holders, it’s not just about saving plants, it’s also about getting them spread far and wide. At Marwood they sell around 40 cultivars of Astilbe through the garden’s nursery and also it’s new online shop.

“Most people just want a nice show in the garden but if only they could get just a little bit more interested, go that little bit higher,” he says.

Malcolm just wants us all to ‘go that little bit higher’, to not just settle for the first plant that comes to hand but to learn a little more about them and to seek out those smaller nurseries and specialist growers who are still out there.

After all, he says: “Everything is getting standardised these days, it’s nice to have something your friends don’t have; I hate to have everything the same.”

The charity Plant Heritage is a garden plant conservation charity and the umbrella organisation for the National Plant Collections.

There are more than 650 collections held in an array of spaces, from indoor shelves and small conservatories, to large gardens and greenhouses; they contain over 95,000 plants from miniature orchids to mighty oaks.

This year Malcolm was presented with the charity’s Brickell Award, which recognises excellence in cultivated plant conservation. It’s presented annually to one of the charity’s 400 or so collection holders.

Malcolm’s tips on growing Astilbe

Astilbe need to be divided – if you don’t lift and divide divide every three to four years and replant from October to March, they get smaller and will eventually die out.

People associate Astilbe with wet planting conditions, but many varieties are fine in drier conditions, particularly the low growing forms.

They grow better in full sun if there’s an adequate supply of water; but they will grow in shade and under trees, if the soil is drier.

Astilbe are very hardy and rarely suffer from any pests. They are as tough as old boots!

Malcolm’s current favourites

Beauty of Ernst: A good plant with striking foliage that gets better as the months go on – it has feathery pale pink flowers in early August. Prefers a fertile, moisture-retentive soil in partial shade to full sun.

Opal: Around 2-3ft high and can be grown anywhere. Long plumes of creamy pink flowers appear throughout July.

Deutschland: One of the Arends’ Astilbes. Plentiful white flowers from late June in to July and growing to around 2-3 ft. Moist soil in sun or part shade.

Fanal: A lovely deep red colour, about 2ft high. Very popular and easy to find. Moist soil in sun or part shade.

Etna: The best deep red cultivar. Around 2ft high with lovley dark foliage, flowering mid June to July. Good moist soil, light shade for best colour.

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