Daisy Days, by Helen Picton

On 14th July 2021, Grayshott Gardeners virtually welcomed Helen Picton from Old Court Nurseries and the Picton Garden in Colwall, near Malvern. Helen comes from a long line of horticulturalists and is the third generation of her family to be involved in the breeding and cultivation of Michaelmas Daisies. Her talk was entitled ‘Daisy Days’.

Michaelmas Daisies are of the Asteraceae family; Helen explained that they are the second largest family of plants. Despite appearances, the head of a Michaelmas Daisy is made up of hundreds of tiny florets – which make up the centre of the bloom known as the disc floret – the part of the plant which is attractive to the insect pollinators. Gardeners are generally more interested in the petals (or ray florets) of the flower and in particular the range of colours.

The name Aster means star-like, and the plant has been known since ancient times. In earlier times it was called Starwort. From the 1920’s it became known as the Michaelmas Daisy; in recent years there has been a re-evaluation of the many different species from different parts of the world with new names now being attributed to the existing groups. There are five main groups: Aster Amellus and Associates (the first to be introduced into the U.K,), Symphyotrichum Novi Belgii (New York, the biggest group), Symphyotrichum Novae Anglicae (New England), Small Flowered Species & Cut Flower Hybrids and Other Species.

The heyday of the Michaelmas Daisy was in the large country estate gardens of late 19th century and early 20th century with the development of the more naturalistic approach to borders as extolled by such famous gardeners as William Robinson, Gertrude Jekyll and Edwin Beckett. The founder of Old Court Nurseries, Ernest Ballard (who was in cider vinegar production and from a wealthy Herefordshire family), led the way in the breeding of new stronger colours and more complex flowers (from about 1907 onwards until his death in 1950) making Michaelmas Daisies freely available to the ordinary gardener. Post the Second World War, Helen’s grandfather – Percy Picton – took over as Nursery Manager and the 50’s and 60’s saw Michaelmas Daisies become hugely popular with numerous new varieties coming onto the market. By the 1970’s, however, they fell out of favour (as did many old herbaceous border favourites) and many cultivars were lost. Largely thanks to the work and dedication of two ladies from Bristol, Miss Isabel Allen and Miss Joy Huish, who began collecting in the 1940’s, many cultivars were saved and eventually the Michaelmas Daisy was recognised by the Plant Heritage Society as one of the first National Collections.

The most important requirements seemed to be to provide a rich, moisture retentive soil and to divide regularly. Helen said that in Grayshott, with its acidic, free-draining soil, probably the best Michaelmas Daisies to grow are from the New England group and the Small Flowered Species group.

Helen’s closing advice to her attentive audience was that there is no excuse for poor colour in autumn and her slides certainly demonstrated this – from good companion plants with other herbaceous perennials, good performance in containers and excellent cut flowers.