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Why don’t astilbes spread? September 24, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading.
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Our friend Ben was sitting on our back deck the other night, enjoying the plump, seed-filled plumes of our favorite astilbe, ‘Professor van der Weilen’. (The good Professor is a cultivar—cultivated variety—dating back to 1917, with arching white flower plumes, as opposed to the upright plumes of most astilbes.) Our plant has formed a very handsome clump over the years, and this year, it’s especially impressive, with lots of arching seedheads.

But I’ve never seen a single seedling. Friends have given us many nice astilbes over the years, and they’ve all thrived in our shade garden, but they’ve never sent up any little astilbes, either. In fact, all of them came from divisions cut off from the mature plants, not from seed-grown plants. Given their vigor and longevity, our friend Ben would have expected to see a forest of astilbes coming up among the hostas, hellebores, geraniums, ferns, bleeding hearts, and other shade-loving plants in this particular garden. But no: The astilbes hold their own just fine, but that’s the end of it.

Gardeners are often cautioned not to plant seeds of prized cultivars, since they seldom come true, i.e., replicate the parent plant. That’s fine, good advice and all that, but what if you don’t care if your seedlings grow up to look and act exactly like their parents, you just want, say, more astilbes?!! Obviously, some astilbe seeds must be viable, or breeders would never be able to create new cultivars. But why weren’t our plants giving us seedlings when they were producing so many seeds?

This time, my good friend Google gave me conflicting advice. Some sites said that astilbe seeds were sterile and the only way to propagate the plants was through divisions. But another group said they’d grown astilbes from seed after ordering them from seed companies and babying them like crazy.

Yowie kazowie. I don’t want to coddle any seeds around here, just let the seedlings come up where they will. And I certainly don’t want to be huffing and puffing with a garden spade dividing plants. I guess we’ll just be enjoying the astilbes we have, checking out plant sales, and thanking our friends for any divisions they care to share with us. Meanwhile, if you haven’t tried ‘Professor van der Weilen’ in your shade garden, at almost 100 years old he’s apparently still available. We think you’d enjoy making his acquaintance!

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