Thursday, 21 June 2012

Painted Daisies

In 1802 the Russian count Apollo Mussin-Pushkin set out on a scientific expedition to Georgia and Mount Ararat. He brought with him a team of experts, including the German explorer Baron Frederick Augustus Marschall von Bieberstein, who spent a long time in the region and eventually published Flora taurico-caucasica  (1808-1819). It was Bieberstein who was credited with finding the painted daisy, although it’s not named after him.  Mussin-Pushkin and Bieberstein  found some other useful plants on that trip, including achillea filipendulina, the parent of many modern varieties, and the catmint nepeta mussinii, as well as the striped squill puschkinia scilloides.

It was a pity that the daisies were not named after Bieberstein or even Mussin-Pushkin, because they keep getting shuffled around. Currently, painted daisies are in the tanacetum family, the same family as the common tansy or feverfew. Before that they were in with the pyrethrums, and they've also spent time as chrysanthemums and leucanthemums (the white daisy family). I tend to think of them as pyrethrums still, but if you want your local nursery or garden centre to know what you're looking for, ask for tanacetum coccineum. (Red tansy, in other words.)

When I think of tansies, I think of tanacetum parthenium 'Aureum', which does have lovely yellow-green leaves, cut like a fern's. However, the down side is that you'll spend each spring picking several hundred of its babies out of your beds and borders. In light of such effort, it's not surprising that flowering takes all the good out of them, and the whole plant has to be sheared back for a new crop of fresh-looking leaves. (And as a form of birth control.)

Painted daisies are much better behaved than their cousins. They're very pretty plants, with flowers ranging in colour from white through rose to cerise-red. They also have pretty, ferny leaves, which look like carrot tops when they first emerge. Tanacetums like a lot of sun, and they're good in dry areas. If  you dead-head them, they'll flower and flower.

The sharp-eyed among you will have noticed that the picture on the left of my blog is of a painted daisy, tanacetum coccineum 'Brenda'. It is a strong, dark pink and grows to about 18 - 20 inches high. (That's 46 to 50 cms for Canadians.) The only downside, as with all painted daisies, is that they can be floppy. I exploited this, and let them soften the edge of my stone path, but whenever I had to start stepping around them, they were sheared back. Never seemed to hurt them.

tanacetum coccineum 'Brenda'
(Photo by Simon Ross)

My soil was probably a little too rich for them, as well. Like a lot of other daisies tanacetums do best in poor soil.

Besides 'Brenda', there are others that I can recommend. 'James Kelway' is a fine, bright red, as well as 'Robinson's Red'. There's also 'Robinson's Pink', which is lighter than 'Brenda'. 'Duro' is supposed to be darker, reddish-purple, and I can't wait to try it. For the more subtle, there are whites such as the double 'Aphrodite' and single 'Snowcloud', while 'Eileen May Robinson' is pale pink. The one you'll see most often is 'Robinson's Mixed', large-flowered, single daisies ranging from white to red. As with cosmos mixtures, you'll get mostly mid-pink flowers, but you can always propagate the ones whose colours you like.

tanacetum coccineum 'James Kelway'
(Picture from Bay State Perennial Farm)

James Kelway was a Victorian nurseryman who developed many kinds of tree peonies and delphiniums, as well as working on pyrethrums. Janet Seaton, the official Kelways historian, says
They had been improving them since the 1880s, introducing new varieties of both single and double flowers. Between 1859 and 1892 the RHS Floral Committee awarded 23 certificates for different varieties of pyrethrums – all but two were won by Kelways, and 12 of those were First Class Certificates.
 Kelways still hold an RHS Award of Garden Merit for the dark crimson pyrethrum ‘James Kelway’ (Tanacetum coccineum) ‘Langport Scarlet’, introduced in 1908, was said to be an improvement on ‘James Kelway’.
You can find one of their old catalogues, The Manual of Horticulture, online. It says that as well as their peonies, "Lupins and Pyrethrums [are] two other flowers with which the name of Kelways is indissolubly associated.'

Nor was Kelway alone in his fondness for pyrethrums, as they were then called. Forbes of Hawick offered 60 kinds of gaillardia and 120 pyrethums in their 1901 catalogue. (Thomas:12) As for Robinsons Hardy Plants, who were also influential in developing pyrethrums, I have not been able to find out anything about them, except that their nursery was at Rushmore Hill and is now owned by Coolings.

I can't help but wonder if pyrethrums, gaillaridas and so on weren't the daylilies and hostas of the early 1900s. They became incredibly popular, everyone wanted to sell them, and then fashions changed or the market was glutted and the world moved on.

I think that with today's focus on environmental gardening, pyrethrums could move back into the spotlight. They don't need much watering or feeding, and they're low-maintenance. Unfortunately, they don't really have a champion. You will have noticed that most of the popular varieties are still named after Kelway and Robinson - a compliment to their powers, but also a sign that no-one is trying to improve on them.

However, there are people out there who are getting inventive with them, and using them in plantings. The blog Natureworks caught my eye with its combination of bright pink daisies with greater leopardsbane (Doronicum pardalianches) behind it. The yellow daisy centres pick up the yellow of the leopardsbane, and it looks very contemporary.

Another ideas would be to exploit both the historical and environmental associations and plant the daisies with achillea and catmint. They all thrive in a similar environment, and would flatter each other, especially a pale coloured achillea in yellow or white. Other plants found in that part of the Caucasus include  masterwort Astrantia biebersteinii (or major), elecampane Inula orientalis, and the light-blue flowered pincushion-flower or scabious Scabiosa caucasica. Lots of ideas there.

The Canadian gardener Patrick Lima is also very fond of painted daisies, and he uses them in his Rosy Border at Larkwhistle, his garden in northern Ontario. There they grow along with meadow rue (thalictrum), catmint, the single peony 'Mahogany', and siberian irises. He also suggests gas plants (dictaminus fraxinella 'Ruber') as good companions for them. (Lima:87)

You won't be surprised to hear that I had mine in my magenta border, along with a geranium  'Patricia', an achillea 'Cerise Queen', and some dark-blue salvia 'Mainacht' to cool it down a bit. For contrast, heuchera 'Key Lime Pie'. Behind all this was an enormous euphorbia schillingi. I was inspired by Monty Don's idea of the Jewel Garden - lots of rich colour. I'm not sure if he would have been flattered by the result, but I liked it.

So there y0u are - four different ways to use pyrethrums. No doubt there are plenty more. 


Lima, Patrick, 1998: The Art of Perennial Gardening: Creative Ways with Plants, Firefly Books, Willowdale, ON, Canada.
Seaton, Janet, 2011: Kelways Glorious: The History of Kelways NurseryPicts Hill Publishing. (also pers.comm.)
Thomas, Graham Stuart, 2004: Perennial Garden Plants, or the Modern Florilegium, Frances Lincoln, London.

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