Victorian asters still going strong

January 13th, 2017 | Plant Talk with Graham Rice | 0 Comments

'Ostrich Plume' asters

Just over a hundred years ago, in the summer of 1914, the Royal Horticultural Society held a trial of asters at its Wisley garden. One hundred and ninety four varieties (yes, 194) were grown.

The report – written by a Mr C. C. Titchmarsh! – states: “They were sown under glass on April 27, the germination being, on the whole, good. The seedlings were pricked out into frames and trans planted, 18 inches apart, on June 9 into the open ground. The site had been trenched and manured in the previous autumn.” Now, that’s the way to grow asters!

They were assessed just once, at the end of August, and I noticed that a number of ‘Ostrich Plume’ varieties in separate colours were given awards. The blood red was “very variable in height” and so failed to receive an award but the shell pink, shaded white, was described as “An excellent bedding variety” and received an Award of Merit. The snow white (“A very good variety; 92 per cent. true”) and the pale lavender blue (“One of the best blues in the trial”) were both Highly Commended (the award below Award of Merit).

What’s interesting about all this is that ‘Ostrich Plume’ asters, which were described as “new” in 1897 (above left, the colours have faded over the years), are still grown today (above right) although sometimes known as ‘Ostrich Feather’. Strangely, in the 1930s plume and feather had become two different types.

Later, in 1960, the RHS ran a trial of 170 asters (which was assessed every week from July to September). Then in 1967 they ran another featuring 270 asters. In 1973 they ran another trial, of 231 asters and the 1982 trial included 114 asters. 1990 was the record year, with 289 entries. And since 1990 – no trials of annual asters at all. Tells you how their popularity has waned, doesn’t it.

But what splendid plants they are – particularly because their colours, though bright, are never ever harsh. I’m definitely going to be growing ‘Ostrich Feather’/’Ostrich Plume’ for cutting this year.

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Is one of our best known gardening writers. A graduate of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Graham was previously Gardening Correspondent of The Observer.
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