It is always good to rekindle friendships with plants I had forgotten about so I was delighted to see two big clumps of Leucanthemella serotina at the weekend at Glasnevin Botanics. Standing tall at the back of the herbaceous borders its thousands of pristine, white flowers were a real spectacle.
I first heard about this tough perennial in my teens when I was a big fan of the late Margery Fish and avidly read her books. She was most famous for her garden at East Lambrook Manor and her books about gardening. Although she came to gardening quite late in life she had a natural feel for the subject. She was something of a typical English, female gardener, at least in my mind, and I can picture her wandering around her garden in tweeds with a trowel and trug and stout brown shoes, her tongue as sharp as her secateurs. I may well be wrong but that is how I imagine her.
It was through her writings that I developed a love for unusual and cottage garden plants and, through her writings, I was definitely influenced.
This is what she said about this plant:
It is difficult to know what we mean when we talk about a cottage garden plant. It is usually something that is good-tempered and pleasing, quite an ordinary plant that is not particular about soil or position. Some of them are still listed in a few nurserymen’s catalogues, but, by degrees they are disappearing and most of us get our odd plants form someone else’s garden.
Take, for instance, the tall white daisy once known as Pyrethrum uliginosum and now called Chrysanthemum uliginosum. Have you ever seen it growing anywhere but in a cottage garden, or listed in a nurseryman’s catalogue? I haven’t and yet it is a remarkably good plant…
I noticed it in two cottage gardens when we first came to this village. In one it was grown in a thick row in front of the cabbages and there were not many other things in flower at the time…
Chrysanthemum uliginosum was a new plant to me, and of course I felt I could not live unless I got a bit to grow in my own garden, and I made up my mind to ask for some. I forget now what I gave in exchange, but I hope it was a generous offering…
Margery Fish (1892-1969), in ‘Cottage Garden Flowers’ (1961)
Of course, things change, like the name of this plant – several times! It is now a leucanthemella – almost THE leucanthemella since there are only two species. This one is a plant from eastern Europe where it grows in moist soils and its old epithet ‘uliginosa’ means ‘of marshes’. At last the new name isn’t just random and ‘serotina’ means ‘late flowering’ and this is one of the last daisies of autumn and definitely the last white daisy.
Apart from its height, what makes it special is the purity of the flowers, especially the yellow eye which is a clean, greenish yellow. There is a cultivar with wider ‘petals’ but I like the look of the wild plant. With good soil it will reach 2m high, maybe even more, and spreads gently into large clumps with rather evenly paced shoots growing through the soil that do not branch much and are largely self supporting.
If you have more luck than Margery Fish and find this plant for sale, buy it. It will thrive in most average soils and in full sun. Margery Fish said it spread by seed but when I have grown it before I have never seen signs of that and have increased stocks by dividing the clumps in spring.
I need to look out for plants because I would like to add it to the garden here. Its height makes it suited for the back of the border where it would look lovely with mid-sized miscanthus. Of course yellow helianthus would be good companions but I used to grow it with the similarly tall Salvia uliginosa. Verbena bonariensis would mix in well. I also fancy it with something tall and red so maybe some phytolacca or a big fuchsia or, since I am gardening where acers do so well, in front of a big Japanese acer.