a plant i’d order: astilboides tabularis

astilboidesIF I WERE SHOPPING 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, though it’s not a spreading thug at all. 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.

astilboides tabularisBut 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 of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York. That was probably in the early 1990s. 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.

rodgersia detailWhen 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 podophylla home on that long-ago day from Cary Arboretum, too…more on that beauty another day (photo above).

  1. Keith Alexander says:

    A fantastic plant. Reminds me of my love of Podophyllum; though Astilboides tabularis’ size tends to make a bigger impact. Must…stay..within…plant…budget…

    Gorgeous photos, as always.

  2. Kathy says:

    I bought my Astilboides years ago when I was attempting to find every plant that would grow or almost grow in my shade garden. I didn’t know much about it at the time (called it Rodgersia). My greediness has payed off, I love the plant, wish I had more space.

  3. dlyn says:

    After seeing your Twit last night, I went to check it out and decided that I could not live without it. And look at that – they have it at LazyS, one of my favorite mail order places. It’s like fate or something, budgets notwithstanding. I love getting a good review on a plant from another gardener in my zone!

  4. balsamfir says:

    Astilboides will definitely take the cold side of zone 4, but it really needs continuous summer water. I have one and we’re always at least three nights below -27F, but since I don’t really have a permanently wet spot, its not completely happy. I’ve been putting a bucket over it every night until june 10, just in case. Sheets didn’t work. But a friend has one in an even colder spot, the next town over, well shaded by evergreens. Although he isn’t even here in the spring, his plant is magnificent;I think the trees block the early spring frosts. When I finish double digging down the bed, I’ll try and move mine. I’m finding my mukdenia much happier with august drought, although not so exciting. Some day…

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Jessica. I am so glad to have the current Newsday garden editor among us (being a former one myself). A I have mentioned here before, I love your blog. Also glad to turn you on to Astilboides, one handsome plant indeed. See you soon again.

  5. Mars says:

    My gosh…If this isn’t a lush and healing color I don’t know what is. Makes me sad over what I missed out on as a kid. Too much cement and not enough green.

  6. Squirrelgardens says:

    So that is what is growing in my shade garden….it is so lovely. Mine is 2 years old and it gives shade to many a songbird this summer. Margaret I love reading your blog which has made me purchase less supermarket garden porn this year. By garden porn I mean those mags with the slick garden photos which never work in Northern Minnesota. Thanks for all.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Carolynn. In my experience, deer will eat almost anything. I have never has this plant eaten (in the years when I had no fence) but that doesn’t mean anything, except that they preferred the nearby hostas, I think. I wish I had a certain answer for you, but alas, I do not.

  7. Amy says:

    I do know this plant is hardy in Vermont. It is growing in a display garden at a nursery in Dorset, a nursery I worked at until a few weeks ago, running the perennial dept. Lousy weather & slow sales add up to lay-offs….sigh. The plant IS wonderful! Just like fairy umbrellas.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Amy. Yes, fairy umbrellas indeed. Sorry about economic challenges (and ones caused by weather), and hoping that the next opportunity presents itself very soon. Meantime, we will see you again here, yes?

  8. Amy says:

    Hello Margaret, I went to visit your friends at Loomis Creek Nursery to see if they had any Astilboides…they do but not saleable size yet. Rats!!! I will be back later for sure. Thanks for all the great advice and the fun reads.

  9. Linda B Horn says:

    Why not use Mayflower a native that spreads easily and is a great spring understory plant. Many natives are being lost and should be reintroduced as bloodroot, shooting star, etc.

  10. Brenda says:

    Do you have a favorite on-line source for this plant? I would love to try it in Zone 4 MN, but there are no local nurseries that carry it. I’ve been looking for it for years, so I just as well give up and order it through the mail.
    Thank you!

  11. Sieglinde Anderson says:

    Love Astilboides tabularis and am trying to establish it at the bottom of my sloped woodland garden. My woods are dry so they require extra watering. I am also starting to collect the various Chinese and Japanese Mayapples (have a few native ones), and recently discovered Diphylleia cymosa (Umbrella Leaf), native to NC but had to mail order. In addition to hostas, Rodgersias and Ligularias, all these large leaved plants are a great textural contrast to woodland ferns and wildflowers. It’s a mystery to me why so few native plants are sold in our local garden centers. Great mail order nurseries used for the first time this year are Far Reaches and Keeping It Green. They shipped beautiful woodland plants though shipping part is expensive.
    Trying hard to curb my lust for unusual plants….

  12. Diane says:

    Thank you for providing wonderful information on shade plants. I have both Astilboides-tabularis and Rodgersia growing in my MN zone 4 woodland garden. We have had weeks worth of weather at -30 and both have survived and done well. I am on sandy soil so I do have to keep up with water for both plants. I found the Astilboides slow to start but well worth the wait.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Diane. Glad to “meet” another person who loves the plant as much as I do. Worth waiting for, indeed.

  13. Judy finch says:

    Margaret, I hate to show my ignorance here, but I just bought a Petasites japonicus var. and since then I’ve read that it is very aggressive. Is this the same thing or should I plant this in a pot. I’m a zone 6 a.

  14. irene stone says:

    Hello Margaret, I love your blog, your talks and your books! Am interested in astilboides and found it at a local nursery. However, a friend told me it must have constant water. If I put it in a shady area (with rain as well as sun blocked by neighboring trees) do you think I would be able to keep it alive with almost (or always) daily watering?

    In Kinderhook, also zone 5.


    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Irene. I got mine at a plant sale in Millbrook, at a public garden, more than 25 years ago, and I have grown it in average soil moisture in various beds since. Never a problem. The “problem” is in the first year in the ground: getting it established with regular watering a couple/few times a week. Once established, I have found it to be very much a survivor, but with those big leaves to support, it can’t dry out till it’s well settled in root-wise.

  15. Anne E. Hock says:

    Hi Margaret. I bought two small plants of Astiliboides from a nursery in Ct. I transplanted
    them into good potting soil up a size larger…and kept them in the shade. They outgrew these
    pots so I went up a couple of sizes. I had bought them in the spring. I kept them in partial
    shade and damp. About three months later one died…and then the other. The nursery
    will replace them,….but what do you think I did wrong? Too much shade…too much water?
    I just love this plant and want to grow a great big one!!! Thanks for your help. Anne

  16. Cheryl Carter, Stamford, CT says:

    I have two Astilboides tubularis at least 19 years ago and planted them in my Hosta collection where it is shaded and damp. I bought them at the Bartlett Arboretum along with three Rodgersias which are planted in a different area also damp and shaded. Unfortunately, I misplaced the tag for the Astilboides and a friend just identified for me. It is certainly a show stopper and friends frequently inquire about it. I have never seen them in nursery but now I will be on a mission. You site and comments are much appreciated. Thank you.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Cheryl. I bought the Astilboides at a botanic garden sale 25 or so years ago, and have loved it since. What a great plant. Hates this very dry year I am having, but nevertheless it’s a winner.

  17. Craig says:

    9 years after the first comments, your articles still inspire. I ordered 3 from Lazy S’s and await the addition of astilboides to my shade garden. I am very excited. Thank you for opening my eyes to foliage in the garden!

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