Monday, 20 December 2021

Michaelmas Daisies: not just a pretty face

The clocks have long since gone back, winter is upon us, and the Michaelmas Daisies have gone to seed and, in most gardens, have now been cut right down: heyho, another season in the garden is rolling to an end.

Did you know that Asters are called “Michaelmas Daisies” because they start flowering in September, which means that they are in full flower and ready to be picked, in time for Michaelmas Day, which is the 29th September. 

Here -  left - are a bedful of Asters, taken on the 18th September.

Why would they need to be available on that day, of all days?

Apparently, it was so that, on that day,  young ladies could pick off their petals, one by one, while intoning “He loves me, he loves me not” in sentimental voices,...  I always thought it was the common white daisy - Bellis perennis - which was mutilated in this fashion, and I hadn't realised that there was a specific date on which to do it, but apparently the tradition started with Asters, on Michaelmas Day.

Over time, it migrated from Asters, on that one day, and became simply "daisies" and "all through the summer".

While doing some research for this article, I discovered that although we now use the common daisy, Bellis perennis, we used to use the Ox-eye daisy, Leucanthemum vulgare, for this game: personally I think we should return to that tradition, as I detest the coarse, thuggish Ox-eye daisy and would be happy to see them ripped to shreds all over the country... whoops, getting a bit carried away there, Ox-eye daisy and all forms of Euphorbia being my pet hates in the garden!

Interestingly, dear old Wikipedia says that the tradition is of French origin, from their game “Effeuiller la Marguerite” ("to pluck the daisy"). But a Marguerite is actually the genus Argyranthemum, which are annuals with large daisy-like flowers. Not actual daisies at all. 

Which, incidentally, shows the importance of learning the proper names of flowers, to avoid all this confusion....

Presumably the young ladies started using any old daisy-like flower, because they didn't want to have to wait until the end of September before choosing the path of true love?

If you've ever wondered why Asters are so reliable as to their flowering date, it's because they don't rely on temperature to determine when they flower, but on day length: and the autumn equinox occurs around the 22nd - 24th September, about a week before Michaelmas Day. This change in day length, the shortening of the days, triggers the plants to start flowering their socks off.

So regardless of the weather - and boy, have we had some weather this year! - they will always be in full flower throughout late September and October, which makes them very useful in the borders, to cover up the gaps and give a splash of colour.

My particular favourite among the Asters is Aster divaricatus, with white flowers and dark, nearly black, zig-zag stems. (I always think of the stems as being “diverted” every couple of inches.) It's what's called a “lax” plant, which means that it's floppy and does not attain any sort of height, so it can be a bit tricky to place it, in a mixed border.

But this year, I came across a very happy accident: late last year I lifted some Asters which were in the wrong place, and heeled them in at random in from of my A. divaricatus, just to keep them alive; and yes, they've been there all summer long. (oops!)

As a result, my A. divaricatus had to grow up through and amongst them, which meant that this autumn, I had a lovely display of lilac Asters, with my white lax ones dotted amongst them like stars. 


Needless to say, this is now a plant pairing that I am going to repeat all round the garden - but I won't be pulling their petals off, one by one! 



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