Astrantia – A Pretty Flower With An Intriguing Past

Astrantia 'Roma'
Astrantia ‘Roma’ is delicate, airy and very photogenic.

In last week’s post, I said that a flower’s structure is one of the main things that makes me want to photograph it.

Astrantias are a good example of this. The shapes created by the outer ruff of petal-like bracts and the inner ‘pincushion’ of tiny flowers make it irresistible to me and my camera.

The astrantia flower offers plenty of detail to photograph. The inner pincushion of flowers has stamens that are like little threads. Just behind each minute flower is a ribbed part that looks like a miniature corn-cob – this will eventually become the seed.

Behind the flowers, the papery bracts are delicately veined with pink or green. Choosing to either bring these veins into sharp focus or to let them blur softly into the background allows for a different feel to the resulting photograph. To take advantage of this, I usually make a series of photographs. Experimenting with different depths of focus and photographing from varied angles is a very pleasant way to spend a morning and it’s ever so easy for time to just pass me by…

The shape of the astrantia flower has given it one of it’s common names – ‘Hattie’s Pincushion’. Who Hattie was, I have absolutely no idea. But it’s a sweet little flower to have as the last trace of her memory.

Astrantia’s other common name is ‘Masterwort’ and it’s this name that you find in historical references.

As ‘Masterwort’, astrantia was believed to have a number of medicinal uses. In ‘Culpeper’s Complete Herbal’, Nicholas Culpeper describes many ways that it could help his patients.

Maladies ranged from ‘all cold griefs and diseases, both of the stomach and body’, to cleansing and healing wounds, and preventing rheumatism and gout. Culpeper also suggests that it should be taken with wine to ‘extract much water and phlegm from the brain, purging and easing it from what oppresses it’.

However, I really wouldn’t recommend trying astrantia as a remedy for any of the ills that Culpeper mentions. His herbal was completed in 1653 and medicine has changed a bit since then!

Nowadays, being ‘a pretty face’ is quite enough for astrantia. It has become popular with garden designers and is easy to grow. Since astrantias prefer moist soil, I find that I need to keep them watered in my dry Suffolk garden. But they grow happily in shade and mix beautifully with other plants. (I think they’d look great combined with grasses, so I plan to try them with Stipa tenuissima next year.) For many gardeners, perhaps the best thing about astrantias is that slugs don’t seem to eat them. Yes, a plant that’s pretty much slug-proof – how wonderful!

Pink astrantia
Astrantias can be pink, red or white.

A Photographer’s Garden

passionflower white lightning
I couldn’t resist buying this passionflower to photograph it.

As both a photographer and a gardener, obviously I tend to choose plants that I think will make a good photograph. The flowers I choose are often fairly large with a complex structure or interesting markings – something to hold the interest of the viewer.

It probably won’t take you long to spot my favourites on this blog. Passionflowers, hellebores, clematis, tulips and alliums are just a few of the flowers that give me the urge to grab my camera. (And, um, a strong urge to visit garden centres too!)

Buying plants to photograph means that I’ll have plenty of subjects for pictures. But buying one each of these plants won’t add up to good garden design. Instead, if I don’t restrain my plant-hunting, I’ll end up with a very bitty-looking garden.

Of course, the remedy is simple. We’re told to plant in groups of three or five, or in drifts if we’re lucky enough to have the space. Yeah, fine! That just gets a bit expensive at the garden centre….

Luckily, lots of the plants I’ve chosen are easy to propagate or else like to spread or seed themselves about. These plants are gradually becoming the backbone of my garden and they make it look a bit more cohesive.

There’s a snag here though. (There would be!) Some plants are getting just a bit too enthusiastic. Tall red scabious are getting absolutely everywhere, the geraniums are ruthlessly trying to smother the young astrantia plants nearby, and Japanese anemones are doing their best to take over the entire garden.

It appears that this photographer’s garden is going to be a constant balancing act. (And some of the more thuggish plants will have to be forced to mind their manners. That may take quite a bit of effort on my part.)

I hope you have the chance to enjoy a garden in this wonderful weather.