Gardening With The Big Boys

If you have a shady location in your garden where the soil is rich and moist, why not use that space to make a dramatic architectural statement with one of the “foliage big boys.

Astilboides tabularis

Astilboides (pronounced ass-til-BOY-deez) is a plant grown mainly for its magnificent leaves, which can mature to 3-feet wide.  You’ll occasionally hear the plant referred to by its old common name of “Shieldleaf” but that’s a bit of a holdover from when it was originally included in the genus Rodgersia.  It now has its own genus.  I have also heard the plant called “umbrella plant” (although this is also a common name given to Darmera profiled below) or “table-top plant” because of the way the large leaves are held flat and suspended above the 3-4 foot hairy stems.

The early evening light reflects the white flowers of Astilboides tabularis (right) and adjacent Astilbes at Juniper Hill.

Astilboides tabularis produces white, astilbe-like flowers atop stems that arch high above the leaves of the plant.  Our Astilboides flowers around the first week of July, along with many of the Astilbes which, by the way, can serve as great accents and planting companions for this plant. Astilboides is a large plant and when it first emerges from the ground in the spring, the unfurling of its leaves can look a little like the beginning of an alien invasion.   

Above Left: Looking very much like something out of The Little Shop of Horrors, the first leaf of Astilboides emerges from the ground on a thick stalk during the first week of May.  Right:  By the third week, more leaves have emerged and have already grown quite large.

Darmera peltata   

A Darmera (with the smaller, more prominently lobed and glossier green leaves) grows to the immediate left of an Astilboides that is just beginning to flower.

Darmera is another plant that enjoys shade and moist soils and is also grown for its magnificent foliage.  The leaves of Darmera are not as large as Astilboides, usually reaching only 18” or so across. However, they are more sculpted, with prominent lobes. As the species name suggests, the leaves are peltate, meaning that they arise from rhizomes on leaf stalks that are attached directly to the center of the leaf.  This results in a cup-like depression in the center of the leaf that’s capable of holding rain water and giving the appearance of an inside-out umbrella.  Thus, the plant’s common name of “umbrella plant.” 

One of the most interesting things about Darmera peltata is the timing of the flowering.  Small pale pink, star-shaped flowers that are borne in clusters, appear in early spring before the foliage appears.  It still surprises me every year to see the flowers shoot out of the ground on single hairy stems before any of the plant’s leaves appear.

Above Left: During the third week of May, the first Darmera flower appears on its long stalk among an Astilboides that has already leafed out.  It will be a little while longer until any leaves of the Darmera appear.  Right: The flower cluster of the Darmera, with each flower appearing to have its own pale pink crown, is one of the prettiest spring flowers in the garden.

Both Darmera (Zone 5-7) and Astilboides (Zone 5-7) look good when planted near water, their native environment.  And unlike a few other large-leafed shade and moisture-loving plants such as Petasites and Gunnera they stay put and mind their manners and will not try to annex half your garden the minute your back is turned. I recently planted a Darmera, along with a few other shade and moisture-loving plants, next to our frog pond, which looks like it would be a moist site. However, it’s not a natural pond (we recently installed it) and is, in fact, very dry around the edges.  So, I have been experimenting with these plants by increasing the dimensions of the hole I dig when I plant them and then lining the bottom of the hole with rubber pond liner in order to slow down drainage and thus increase moisture retention around the plants. So far it seems to be working but time will tell if the plants will really become established there. And, speaking of water…it’s important to keep the soil moist around both of these plants in extreme hot summer temperatures and to plant them in areas that don’t receive much direct sunlight in order to prevent leaf browning or scorching.  Other than that, keep a watch for slugs and you will be sure to make a bold statement with either of these foliage eye-catchers!