It feels somehow that such a bold and gleaming plant as Astelia chathamica should look so good in the depths of winter. The majority of grey and silver-leaved plants need hot, sunny conditions to grow well and, when the cold and wet arrive, they either start to look very tatty or they disappear completely. In appearance very much like a phormium, it has elegant, arching leaves that are silvered on the front and downy-white on the back, giving the impression that the whole plant is shimmering.
Recently many garden designers have been attracted to the dramatic form of Astelia chatamica and in their enthusiasm, assuming them to be like other silver-leaved plants, they often site them in baking, sunny places. This is a sure way to kill them: Astelias’ unlikely preference is for dappled shade and good, moist soil. In their native New Zealand they grow in the damp humus-rich slightly acidic soil found on the edges of forests.
Given shade and soil that does not dry out in summer Astelias will thrive in most gardens. Although they will not tolerate the continual iciness of frost pockets they will survive cold and even snow. Mine are planted in a shady bed that was prepared a few years ago with lots of compost and leaf-mould. A mulch of leaf-mould is added each year but kept away from the crown of the plant. When the weather is very cold and wet some of the outer leaves get damaged and may begin to rot, but these are removed by pulling them away firmly from the crown so that the base of the plant is left clean.
There are many woodland plants that grow well with Astelia chathamica. Around mine are planted Pulmonaria longifolia ‘Ankum’, which has long narrow leaves that echo those of the Astelias. Clumps of the white form of Anemone nemerosa bask in the Astelias’ glow. Together they form a picture to lighten even the darkest days of winter. In the Glyndebourne Astelias are grown in huge lead planters (the sort that the rest of us can only dream of) and looked spectacular accompanied by Tulip Angelique in the spring and blue flowers of Lord Anson’s Pea (Lathyrus nervous).