Sunday, August 31, 2008

Mönch Asters

What’s blooming in the area: Tea and miniature roses, winterfat, datura, Heavenly Blue and ivy-leaf morning glories, cardinal climber, bindweed, trumpet creeper, honeysuckle, silver lace vine, purple phlox, bouncing Bess, bigleaf globemallow, blue vervain, mullein, white sweet clover, velvetweed, yellow and white evening primroses, scarlet beeblossom, alfilerillo, goats head, toothed spurge, stickleaf, pigweed, lamb’s quarter, amaranth, ragweed, goldenrod, wild lettuce, horseweed, goats beard, hawkweed, African marigold, áñil del muerto, Hopi tea, gumweed, spiny, hairy golden, sand, heath and purple asters, tahokia daisy, farmers, plains and native sunflowers, corn, redtop, black grama, barn and muhly ring grasses; buds on skunkbush; bittersweet berries orange.

What’s blooming in my garden, looking north: Red hot poker, golden spur columbine, coral beardtongue, hartweig, chocolate flower, fern-leaf yarrow, blanket flower, coreopsis, anthemis, black-eyed Susan, Mexican hat, perky Sue, chrysanthemum, yellow cosmos.

Looking east: Hosta, crimson climber morning glory, large-leaf soapwort, coral bells, ipomopsis, California poppy, garlic chives, hollyhock, winecup, sidalcea, pink salvia, pink veronica, pink evening primrose, Jupiter’s beard, sweet alyssum from seed, sedum, Maximilian and garden sunflowers, cutleaf coneflower, zinnias from seed; hollyhock seed cases opening.

Looking south: Rose of Sharon, Blaze rose, tamarix, Illinois bundle flower, Sensation cosmos; lilac buds forming, grapes getting larger.

Looking west: Caryopteris, buddleia, Russian and Rumanian sage, catmint, perennial four o’clock, flax, David phlox, leadplant, purple ice plant, purple coneflower, Mönch aster.

Bedding plants: Snapdragon, sweet alyssum, moss rose, Dahlberg daisy, French marigold, gazania.

Inside: Aptenia, zonal geranium, bougainvillea; beginning to need less water.

Animal sightings: Hummingbirds, finch, ants, bees, fewer grasshoppers.

Weather: Rain last Sunday as Fay hit Florida for the fourth time; rain again Tuesday before Gustav formed in the Caribbean; temperatures remained cooler, ranging from mid-50's to middle 80's; 13:38 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: If it weren’t for Agatha Christie, I doubt I’d be growing asters.

Michaelmas daisies locate her mysteries by season or class and serve as unobtrusive signs for the nearness of violent death. They aren’t the ones neglected or passing, but stand in contrast to "unevenly mown" lawns and "straggling chrysanthemums." They are the "great banners of Autumn" in a "neglected garden," the "last dying splash of purple beauty."

I tried with little success to grow asters in Michigan, but few were actually Christie’s flowers. Botanists have now determined the DNA of north American plants like New York, New England, heath and purple asters is not close enough to the Europeans, and have moved them into a separate genera on composites, Symphyotrichum.

It was with some reluctance I bought any here, and I was greatly surprised when Dunkle Schöne and Mönch actually survived for more than a season. The first is an alpine aster offered by Ernst Benary that grew low and bloomed in May until the winter of 2003. The replacement plants failed, and I abandoned the species. After all, true Michaelmas daisies should bloom near that feast day, September 29, which the British use as a synecdoche for autumn.

I’ve had better luck with the taller, yellow-centered Mönch. The small plants I ordered in 1997 lasted until severe weather weakened them in 2001. The ones I bought locally in 2003 and 2005 died out, but the cuttings I planted in 2006 are now covered with large lavender flowers on knee high stems that should last until severe cold takes them in October or November.

Mönch is the product of that happier time evoked by Christie’s novels when racism and fundamentalism hadn’t yet converged to deny Darwin and the reverend Charles Wolley-Dod could take two species and see if they would interbreed. His crosses between Aster amellus and Aster thomsonii disappeared, but other hybrids of the two were introduced in the 1920's by Carl Frikart from a nursery in Stäfa on Lake Zurich.

The purple-flowered amellis grows from southern and eastern Europe into bordering Asia. Gertrude Jekyll, the garden designer most responsible for the herbaceous borders that imbue Christie’s backgrounds with their moods, used amellis "in rather large quantity, coming right to the front in some places, and running in and out between the clumps of other kinds" in her 1908 plan for a Michaelmas border.

The lavender-rayed thomsonii was discovered by Charles Baron Clarke in Kashmir in 1876, and sent back to England so Wolley-Dod could show his new hybrids in 1892. They too evoke those better times when the tribal Himalayas were new territory for the British Empire, when Murder in Mesopotamia did not suggest suicide bombers, but archaeological digs with Dame Agatha’s new husband, and when Death on the Nile was not a killer of local livestock but a honeymoon adventure.

It’s ironic that Frikart’s Mönch asters are the only specimens on an English estate garden I’ve ever been able to grow, especially since our New York aster is now commonly sold there as the Michaelmas. However, one of its ancestors did come from the mountains of India through a stay in the Alps of Switzerland, before landing in England where Penelope Hobhouse now recommends the south-facing Mönch in place of amellis in Jekyll inspired borders.

Christie, Agatha. Cards on the Table, 1936, chrysanthemums.
_____. Death on the Nile, 1937.
_____. Evil Under the Sun, 1980, banners and neglected garden.
_____. Murder in Mesopotamia, 1936.
_____. Murder is Announced, 1950, dying splash.
_____. The Clocks, 1963, lawn.

Hobhouse, Penelope. Gertrude Jekyll on Gardening, 1983, compilation of writings by Jekyll with commentary by Hobhouse, including quotation from page 216.

Jekyll, Gertrude. Colour in the Flower Garden, 1908, reprinted by Elibron Classics, 2005.

Photograph: Mönch asters 30 August 2008.

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