Daisy Days – a Talk by Helen Picton
Old Court Nurseries in Malvern Worcestershire, established in 1906 by Ernest Ballard VMH, is often considered to be the birthplace of the Michaelmas Daisy, or as we should now be more correctly referring to them, Autumn flowering Asters. The Picton family has been running the nursery and associated garden since 1947 and Helen is the third generation to be involved.
Michaelmas Daisies were named after the Feast of Saint Michael, 29 September, the peak of flowering for most of the original varieties and it still remains so for most of the hybrids. The first aster to be recorded appearing in gardens was in 1596, the European aster A. amellus, being grown for its medicinal properties. The American asters A. novi-belgii and A. novae-angliae appeared around 1710 but didn’t become popular until around 1870 when Hon. Vicary Gibbs propagated them in large quantities in his garden at Aldenham. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that breeding and hybridising took off seriously lead by Ernest Ballard and remained extremely popular until the 1960s when interest rapidly declined. At its peak perhaps 1000 cultivars were in existence but nearer 300 now. Attempts to cross-breed between the European and American species have always failed and recent genetic research has shown that they are indeed from totally different genera and much renaming is likely to result.
Although there are two asters native to the UK, A. linosyris, Goldilocks Aster, and A. tripolium, Sea Aster, neither are really garden worthy plants. All the usually grown species are mainly North American with some from Europe / Asia. All should be grown in a sunny open position although A. divaricatus tolerates some shade.
The Aster novi-belgii group cross-breed very readily and produce a large range of hybrids from dwarf only six inches high up to the large varieties up to 7ft or more and a wide range of colours from purple through red to pink and white. Their main problem is mildew but cross-breeding with A. laevis reduces the problem. Plants should be divided in autumn or spring every three years otherwise plants become less vigorous and eventually die out. Propagation is easy from division and even very small pieces take well. Helen showed us pictures of many cultivars including 'Rosebud' (pale pink 6 inches), 'Apollo' (white 18 inches), 'Jenny' (purple red 18 inches), 'Winston S. Churchill' (vibrant purple red 3ft), 'Percy Thrower' (large lavender flowers 3.5ft), 'Sandford White Swan' (white fading to pink 3ft) and 'Anita Ballard' (lavender early 6ft).
The Aster novae-angliae group has far fewer cultivars and does not hybridise with other species. The colour range is more restricted from purple to pink and height 3ft and up but very importantly they are free from mildew. They tend to make woody clumps bare at the bottom and as such are perhaps best planted towards the rear of borders. Plants should be divided in autumn or spring every 3 to 5 years, just chopping with a spade into reasonably sized clumps. A few varieties include 'Barr’s Pink' (pink easy 4-5ft), 'Anabelle de Chazal' (pink 3.5ft), 'Herbstschnee' (the only white 4ft), 'Saint Michael’s' (lavender blue 4ft), 'Primrose Upward' (purple red 4ft) and 'Purple Dome' (purple 2ft).
Aster amellus has very few cultivars now, 1 – 3ft in height with single lavender to pink flowers. Grow in sharply drained soil and divide only in the spring every 3 to 5 years into substantial pieces. Popular varieties include 'King George' (purple blue 2ft), 'Brilliant' (pink 2ft), 'Rudolph Goethe' (lavender blue 2ft). Of the other asters, the A. x frikartii group flowers from July until October, 'Little Carlow' is possibly the best blue and 'Snow Flurry' is a ground hugging prostrate variety with small white flowers.
Helen showed us some amazing pictures of asters being grown in the Picton Garden at Old Court where they hold the national collection of autumn flowering asters. These were really spectacular and resulted in gasps of delight from the audience. Thanks to Helen for adding to our knowledge and covering this genus in such detail.
First published in the Hampshire Group Newsletter Autumn 2012
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 32.
© Copyright for this article: Peter Hart
This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2013. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.