IF I WERE SHOPPING THIS YEAR in the mail-order plant catalogs, and if I didn’t already have it, I’d order Astilboides tabularis, perhaps the most asked-about plant here during garden tours. I say “if” on both points because I am trying to practice restraint over here, so instead of buying things I’m pretending—and recommending them to you instead. Talk about armchair gardening. But there’s nothing virtual about Astilboides. It’s a shade-garden must.
With nearly 2-foot-wide, light green leaves on hairy stems that can approach 4 feet here, Astilboides tabularis is no shy thing. The stems attach in the middle of the leaf, so the foliage is held aloft like a small, round pedestal table—or some people say an umbrella. But its name is so descriptive, if you think about it: the tabularis part (meaning flat-topped, like a table), and even the genus name, Astilboides, since its flowers look like a giant creamy astilbe plume of sorts. Its “common” name (though I’ve never heard anybody say it) is shieldleaf. Make mine Astilboides.
I brought my first clump home from a plant sale at the nearby Cary Arboretum, as it was then called, now the Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, NY. That was perhaps 17 years ago; my original clump has been pilfered from to spread the beauty various times, but other than said pilfering and a late-fall cleanup, I don’t do anything to this plant. A tip: Don’t cut it back too soon. The way it fades is lovely, with yellow and tan phases worth enjoying as it relaxes on its way to sleep (above).
I find Astilboides easy to grow, as long as it has good, season-long soil moisture, a shady spot, and isn’t zapped by frost early in the going, as the leaves are starting to open. It’s the first thing I run to cover with an old sheet if we get a late frost, else its foliage gets tarnished, though it will send up more in time. Depending who you believe, it’s hardy from Zone 5 or even as cold as 3 to 9. Anyone have insights? I can guarantee Zone 5.
When I adopted it all those years ago, Astilboides used to be Rodgersia, and it’s a close cousin of that other genus of bold-leaved perennials that can help make even a cold-climate garden feel a little bit tropical. I brought some divisions of Rodgersia home that long-ago day from Cary Arboretum, too…more on those another day. Sources: