Family

Roscaceae

What is it?

Spring flowering perennial with drooping flowers and attractive seed heads.

Size

Height: 50cm. Spread: 50cm. 

Where to grow

Damp woodland garden, shady border or beside a pond in semi-shade.

Distribution Map

Blue dots: native occurrences
Red dots: introductions
© BSBI & BRC, reproduced with permission

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A lovely little wildflower for damp and cool spots, this is cottage garden favourite that will seed around gently, popping up wherever it’s happy.

This is a perfect antidote to all those big and blousy border flowers. Water Avens has a subtle beauty, providing a soft foil to bolder colours. It forms tidy clumps of toothed leaves that are divided into several rounded leaflets. Above these rise the flower stems, usually of a contrasting reddish colour, each carrying a small spray of flowers. These open sequentially over a period of weeks in May and June, the five dark reddish sepals of each pendant bud opening to reveal apricot-pink or yellowish-pink petals. The flowers are followed by wonderful heads that look like fluffy burrs. Several forms are available, such as ‘Leonards Variety’ with double coppery flowers and ‘Album’ with bells of soft ivory. Hybrids with other species are increasingly popular, with bright and colourful forms such as ‘Totally Tangerine’ and ‘Lemon Drops’ able to grow in drier spots than our native species, but completely lacking its delicate charm.   

In the wild, Water Avens is a plant of damp and wet soils. It grows along stream sides and around lakes and ponds, in moist woodland and shaded fens. In more upland areas it grows in the open in hay meadows and on damp, shaded ledges on mountain cliffs. Most frequent in northwest Britain, it’s largely absent from most parts of southern England and has declined in many areas through drainage and agricultural improvement of habitats. 

Plants are widely available from garden centres and nurseries, but are less easy to find these days in the onslaught of new hybrids. They’re ideal for a shaded border or pond side with moist soil. New plants grow readily from seed sown in summer or autumn, or divide large clumps in autumn or early spring. This species can seed around if the conditions suit, but it’s rarely unwelcome.