Michaelmas time

When it comes to regular blogging, I am a complete failure. I'm way behind on all sorts of things that I meant to record. However, I've been asked to write a monthly column for Cirencester and District Beekeepers, to which I belong, so I thought I'd recycle it and post it on my blog as well. Cheating, yes, but hey...
October's plant of the month is Michaelmas daisies, or asters, which are not only a spectacular addition to the late-summer garden, but also a great source of late-summer pollen. Bees of all kinds love them and we’re lucky in having two gardens open to the public that showcase asters within an hour’s drive of Cirencester. 
Waterperry, near Wheatley (just off the A40 the other side of Oxford) has a magnificent herbaceous border that features every kind of aster you can think of, from stately cultivars nearly six feet high, down to compact versions that form a neat dome at the front of a border. Colours range from vibrant purple, through magenta, red, pink and white, as well as the classic lavender-blues.
Waterperry have special Michaelmas Daisy weekends in September and October when there are tours of the gardens. Our tour was led by the horticultural manager Rob Jacobs, who was both informative and entertaining - the perfect guide.

Part of the herbaceous border at Waterperry, which is planted along traditional lines, which means it includes only herbaceous plants.

The gorgeous lavender aster on the right is Aster 'Marie Ballard', raised by Ernest Ballard at Old Court Nurseries near Malvern

Perennials such as solidago, rudbeckia and helianthus are used at Waterperry to provide a vibrant contrast to the aster colours

I loved this new border at Waterperry, which is designed in a much more contemporary style, inspired by Piet Oudolf.

The stock beds at Waterperry - many of these are for sale in the nursery, thank goodness.

Old Court Nurseries, at Colwall, near Malvern, was started by Ernest Ballard in 1906, and taken over by Percy Picton in 1956. The Picton family still run the nursery, which holds the National Collection of Autumn-flowering Asters. Their show garden, named after Percy, features more than 400 varieties, including some of those bred by Ernest Ballard, such as 'Marie Ballard' and 'Patricia Ballard'.

Asters and pale pink dahlias make a charming combination in the Percy Picton Garden at Old Court Nurseries.

Most asters come from North America, but the European native, Aster amellus, has provided some outstanding cultivars, such as 'King George' and ‘Veilchenkonigen’. It is also a co-parent of the Aster x frikartii hybrids, which as well as being beautiful have inherited their parent's famed resistance to mildew.
Aster x frikartii 'Monch' is great garden flower, as is 'Wunder von Stäfa', which is my own personal favourite. The frikartii hybrids are named after their breeder, a Swiss nurseryman called Carl Ludwig Frikart, which also explains why the different varieties have German names (Stäfa was the name of the town where Frikart had his nursery.) 
If you don't have a sunny garden, grow Aster divaricatus, or the white wood aster, which honeybees also love, but which is pretty much the only aster that thrives in shade.
A word here about names. In 1998, research by an international team of botanists based mainly at Kew Gardens led to the reclassification of the entire plant world according to its molecular structure, instead of going by appearance. 
Nothing wrong with identifying a plant by its DNA, you might think, but many plants were given new names and even expert gardeners get confused. I’ve long suspected that botanists choose the most complicated names they can dream up just to have a laugh. 
Every so often, the Royal Horticultural Society decides formally to adopt the new name, and this year - 2015 - it’s the turn of Michaelmas daisies.
Aster divaricatus, for example, is now officially known as Eurybia divaricata, not only changing its name but also its gender. What used to be Aster cordifolius ‘Little Carlow’ is now Symphyotrichum ‘Little Carlow’ (cordifolius hybrid).  

In the language of flowers, the Michaelmas daisy means "farewell", probably because it blooms at the end of the productive season. Michaelmas (the feast of St Michael the Archangel) falls on 29 September, and according to an old rhyme, the Michaelmas daisy blooms in time for Michaelmas day and continues to flower until the feast of St Simon and St Jude on 28 October.


  1. I love Waterperry and I agree with your description of Rob. I have aster 'Waterperry' in my garden as a souvenir of my visit.

    Have you read the Pictons' book on Asters? It's very good, with a great explanation of the name changes, which the Americans have been using for quite a bit longer than us in the UK. I'm finding it most difficult to fix Symphyotrichum in my noddle though - for once it's most tempting to stick with the common name for all asters.

    As a result of reading their book I've decided to acquire 'Little Carlow' as it originally hails from Devizes. One day I'll blog about "local plants, for local people" - if I can find a few more of them which originate from Wiltshire - I have 3 from Devizes, plus Wiltshire apples so far.

    1. In that case, you might like to take a look at this, VP. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/gardening/how-to-grow/unusual-plants-are-just-waiting-to-be-found/

  2. Good grief, I used to go to yoga with Martin! We even had a class get together in his garden. This was before I became more keen on gardening - he just said he was a gardener, I didn't know about this!

  3. A really interesting post. I saw a big aster at Slimbridge a few weeks ago that was absolutely covered in bees. It made me determined to get one or two for the garden.

  4. The RHS are just about to start an AGM trial on symphytrochium at Old Court Nursery. We have got together 3 national collection holders and others including Liz Glasser who is in charge of the asters at Waterperry, she is a real aster nut. The first meeting was last week which was fascinating as you see the difference between how nurserymen and gardeners view plants. Im the recorder for the trial, first nonRHS recorder I believe, it of an experiment for the RHS

  5. Fantastic! That must be so interesting. I was up at Old Court a few weeks ago, and bought some more 'Wunder von Stafa'. I didn't think it was going to do well, but it's been great - a really good border plant.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

John Massey's garden

Wildflowers in Texas (believe it or not)

Trees at Colesbourne Park