Amazing annuals: Callistephus

Fashions come and go. A century ago everyone grew callistephus, better known as China asters. Even fifty years ago they were still popular summer bedding plants. They were grown without much thought I suspect, just a traditional part of the spring garden ritual – you just grew asters. The problem is that, as bedding plants they have a fatal flaw: they do not bloom till late summer and then their season is all too brief. Up against ever-blooming French marigolds and then, in the 70s, against the newly ubiquitous busy Lizzies, their fate was sealed.

But perhaps it is time to rediscover them. I certainly cannot, in all conscience, ignore them for their short bloom season when I go to great efforts to grow peonies which are at their glorious best for a week!

Looking at old catalogues it is clear that asters were treated very seriously in the past. Robinson is a fan ‘Among the many annuals now in cultivation, China Asters (C. chinensis) are among the best, and when well grown and cared for they do as much to adorn a garden during summer and autumn as any annual plant. To see them in their beauty, however, they must be grown in masses, and well cultivated – not at any stage left to haphazard or poor culture.’

You rarely see trays of plants for sale in spring and I suspect they would not sell well because we expect to buy bedding complete with a flower. Young aster plants are not especially lovely and it will be many months before they grow, bush out and bloom.

When I started gardening ‘Ostrich Plume’ were all the rage, with thin petals and ragged blooms. Plus, of course, the old, single ‘Madelaine’ types. Tall and simple, with blooms in shades of pink, lilac, purple and white, these are good mixers in a border and I am growing them again next year. They make perfect cut flowers too. In fact, with the growing interest in cut flowers the taller asters are gaining popularity. In the curious way that any green flower is described as of interest to flower arrangers, the strange ‘Hulk’ is present in most seed catalogues though I have yet to succumb to its charms. I have grown it but it left me cold – unlike virtually every other aster I have grown.

Asters should be sown in spring with the rest of the half hardies. I usually sow in late March and Robinson concurs, recommending between the 26th of March and the 26th of April. I usually give them standard treatment while he encourages double digging of the planting spot and the addition of copious quantities of manure. For general purposes this is not necessary. But well-drained soil is important.

They do not need pinching out as they grow and they are naturally well branched. Some modern kinds, especially those bred in Japan, with smaller blooms, make ready-formed bouquets that can be cut as a whole plant. Deadheading is not usually very useful. After the main flowers have started to fade there may be secondary, smaller flowers but I don’t believe that deadheading would prolong flowering, though it may tidy up the plants, especially in wet weather when the full flowers tend to go mouldy.

Asters are usually available in mixtures but look out for single colours too. The colour range encompasses pale yellow, apricot, champagne, white, pink, red, mauve and lavenders, purple and close to, but not, blue.

They can be associated with all manner of plants but, perhaps, very effectively with the perennial asters and garden chrysanthemums.

2 Comments on “Amazing annuals: Callistephus”

  1. tonytomeo
    December 14, 2020 at 7:15 am #

    I remember these only as cut flowers, not as bedding plants. Even as cut flowers, they were not common.

  2. Paddy Tobin
    December 14, 2020 at 9:04 am #

    Fashions come and go but these look very worthwhile.

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