Annual China “asters” are not classified in the genus Aster by modern botanists, but are so-called by gardeners. Today they are classified botanically as Callistephus chinensis. Seed was brought to Europe from China by French missionaries in 1728. By 1731 Philip Miller was growing them in England, and John Custis of Virginia mentions China asters in the year 1735. In the late eighteenth century potted plants of China asters in flower were sold by the thousands in France. The French referred to them as “Reine Marguerites.”
In the nineteenth century several types of China asters were grown. Shirley Hibberd, a British author, in his 1871 gardening guide The Amateur’s Flower Garden, considered the best seed strains to be ‘Peony-flowered,’ ‘Chrysanthemum-flowered’ and ‘Quilled.’ At that time many different strains were available that have since disappeared, including two types with striped flowers.
This year I grew a strain of China asters from about 1900 named ‘Crego Mix’. The colors are beautiful and clear, the flowers single to double and they are great for cutting. The plants of this variety grow about 24 inches tall. Another antique strain, ‘California Giants’ from 1899, is also available today.
The culture of these plants is not difficult. Seed can be direct-sown about the time of the last frost if your season is not too short. Another option is to start them inside at about 68 degrees, then transplant when one inch tall into flats. Plant out when three inches tall, about six inches apart. An important detail to remember is to plant China asters in different places in the garden each year; this is a similar rotation as is used for vegetables, so three or four years must elapse before they are planted in the same location.
China asters make truly beautiful cut flowers; my aunt sold them in bunches at a farmer’s market in Montana for several years. She grew them in long rows. I do recommend growing these lovely flowers! Seed can be saved and planted the next year to preserve the antique varieties.