Gardeners have had a long time to get it right with Michaelmas daisies. In fact we have had 300 years yet we still complain about our Michaelmas daisies; too tall, floppy, mildew … Gerard’s Catalogue and Herbal of 1596-7 is the given date for the introduction of Aster amellus or Italian aster to Britain (p537 Hadfield’s 1936 Gardener’s Companion) and in “1710 Aster novi-belgii and A. novae-angliae ,parents of the modern Michaelmas daisy, (arrived) from N. America” (pp537-539 Hadfield 1936).
Aster novi-belgii “is the plant with the strongest genes and has been the one most used in breeding our present-day Michaelmas Daisies. When grown well and looking happy they add star quality to the late summer herbaceous border, but they are not as steadfast as some would like. They are vulnerable to attack by anything that moves or munches in the soil –snails, slugs …as well as Fusarium wilt, leaf spot, powdery mildew and grey mould and if that isn’t enough, many of the taller varieties require staking.” (p155 Maggie Campbell-Culver’s scholarly The Origin of Plants)
This explains the mid-nineteenth century description of Michaelmas daisies in The Flower Garden by E.S. Delamer “ – Great, straggling, gawky things, which would be discarded, but that they put forth flowers, in considerable variety of white, pink, purple, and blue, when almost everything else is in the sear and yellow leaf, and therefore are acceptable to help fill up bouquets.” Our friend, Eugene Sebastien Delamer, clearly doesn’t want them in his backyard.
But all was not lost, as by the 1920s Victor Vokes was breeding shorter and sturdier varieties “specifically to plant in war cemeteries. He crossed A. novi-belgii with A. dumous … a war horse of a plant with good sturdy genes” (p155 Campbell-Culver) This “resulted in the named variety called ‘Remembrance’, which is often still in bloom on Armistice Day.” A rare photograph can be seen at http://www.clivenichols.com/cgi-bin/stephen_johnson/database/imageFolio.cgi?action=view&link=44k&image=044036.jpg&img=0&search=DAISY&cat=all&tt=&bool=phrase
Despite all the bad press through the centuries, there are some wonderful Michaelmas daisies and for shades of blue, I would recommend the following three: Aster ‘Little Carlow, A. ‘Veilchenkönigin’ and A. x frikartii ‘Mönch’. For my first shade of blue, Aster ‘Little Carlow’ (syn. A. cordifolius ‘Little Carlow’), in 2006 was listed as “Today’s most fashionable Michaelmas daisy” in the UK Telegraph. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/gardening/gardenprojects/3338685/On-the-spot-the-best-Michaelmas-daisies.html
Bought from Free Spirit Nursery, I have it planted in partial shade (facing north west) with the mauve Verbena bonariensis and next to my neighbour’s cedar trimmed into a ball. It is mildew resistant and beloved by bees and butterflies.
‘Little Carlow’ is an Irish hybrid of Aster cordifolius (syn. Symphyotrichum cordifolius) known as the ‘Common Blue Wood Aster’ which is a native of eastern North America. These tall border asters are a favourite of Piet Oudolf, and of Paul Picton, a foremost breeder of asters in the UK. He writes “A current and promising trend in the breeding of asters for the garden involves A. novi-belgii and A. cordifolius. Developments have been inspired by Mrs. Thornely’s 1930s introduction of A. ‘Little Carlow’ (fig. 17), a wonderful plant combining the best characters from both parents: stout, long-lived clumps of graceful 120cm sprays of bright, lavender blue flowers over a long season.” (Paul Picton of Old Court Nurseries, in a detailed 2010 article with photographs http://www.hardy-plant.org.uk/articles/spring10/3.pdf)
The Telegraph article mentioned earlier lists 6 of the best, another of which is my personal favourite Aster amellus ‘Veilchenkönigin’ which translates as Violet Queen. I first fell in love with the Violet Queen after seeing it in Christopher Lloyd’s book The Year at Great Dixter (1987), where he pairs this stocky short Italian aster with lipstick pink Nerine x bowdenii. The vibrant violet-blue colour and short stems of this aster make it ideal for overcast North Vancouver days and wetter weather, and as an added bonus, bees love the single flat blooms.
My last shade of blue – lavender-blue – belongs to the aster I call the monk, actually Aster x frikartii ‘Mönch’, or Frikart’s Aster. It has “ 2” diameter daisy-like flowers with lavender blue rays and yellow centers. Flowers are borne in profusion on a compact, multi-stemmed plant typically growing to 2’ tall with a loose, bushy, open habit. Flowers freely from early summer to fall. Oblong leaves (to 2.5” long) are dark green, rough and disease-free.” http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?kempercode=h410
“It is a cross between Aster amellus (Italian aster or starwort) and A. thomsonii, this is an upright perennial with an ability to thrive in dry areas. A. thomsonii is a Himalayan species found on dry woodland edges. ‘Mönch’ was one of several deliberate crosses made by a Swiss nurseryman called (Carl Ludwig) Frikart around 1918 when he was just 29. He named all his crosses after Swiss mountain peaks. ‘Mönch’ is one of the best, and ‘Wunder von Stafa’ bred in 1924, is similar but with bluer flowers.” http://www.rhs.org.uk/Gardens/Harlow-Carr/About-Harlow-Carr/Plant-of-the-month/October/Aster-x-frikartii-Mönch There is also another of his crosses called the ‘Eiger’. I would recommend gently staking the monk and lifting and dividing it every three years.
All three asters are seasonally available from the excellent Free Spirit Nursery http://freespiritnursery.ca/ run by Lambèrt & Marjanne Vrijmoed, open until October 19th only