13 September 2010

Always making an aster of myself

The beginning of aster season is always one that finds me with a mixture of delight and dread. The delight, of course, comes from the fact that asters are floriferous, colourful, and present a wonderful flourish of colour when many gardens are starting to wind down.

It goes almost without saying that the dread comes from the fact that they are one of the finales of the main gardening season. They're a valuable part of what Nancy Ondra and Stephanie Cohel refer to as 'Fallscaping', in their wonderful book of the same name: focusing on designing your garden so that autumn is one as rich with colour and texture as spring or summer. While part of me loves the cooler weather and the richness of autumn colours, there IS that part that quails at the thought of winter. But we're focusing on the good things today, and asters are one of the joys of the fall garden palette.

One of their charms for me is how their colours are quite different from many shades of September. At a time when foliage on shrubs, hardwood trees and some perennials, along with many of the flowers still blooming in this month, are alight with bronze, copper, gold, crimson, orange and red, asters erupt with sometimes cooler, sometimes even hotter shades. This purple New England aster in my friend Jerry's garden is a perfect contrast to the brighter yellows and golds echoed by its central florets.

I like white asters for their cooling appearance, and in the case of the calico asters (A. lateriflorus), the tiny flowers that festoon lateral branches of these plants can almost completely cover the plants. Despite the tiny flowers, the calico asters are one of my favourites, reminding me of pagoda dogwoods or the plicatum tomentosum viburnums such as 'Mariesii' and 'Summer Snowflake', with their layered, lateral-branching effects.

Asters don't all bloom at the same time. There are petite, earlier-flowering forms, often alpine, which gladden the gardeners heart during summer, and the distant cousins that are annual 'asters' (Callistephus). I don't grow the annuals, but do have a wide variety of perennial asters, some of which are just as delightful while in bud as in full bloom.

'Woods Pink' is a dumosus aster, one of the lower-growing, even ground-covering, forms. It's wellnamed, being a powderpuff-pink shade, and a nice addition to borders.

A word about genus nomenclature. In recent years, DNA typing and further study has led taxonomists to move some former members of genus aster to other genera, including Symphytotrichum, Eurybia and Eucephalus. It's always so encouraging to gardeners to have an easy-to-pronounce name switched to something more cumbersome, isn't it? (Or not...) However, for simplicity's sake I am going to refer to all of these as asters, and you'll find plenty of websites and books that do the same, offering the newer name as synonym. No one will scold you, unless it's some taxonomist with nothing better to do.

I used to have a perennial problem with asters, in that I would buy a couple and plant them out, then forget where they were, and inadvertently weed them out in the spring. I would also invariably leave several wild asters, of which there are at least a dozen species in Nova Scotia, (plus the infinite interspecies hybrids that form from these promiscuous plants), to come into bloom instead. Now, I simply leave them all to grow, and whether they are cultivated types like this tall, NOID New England aster...
...or wild varieties like this white wood aster (which now is classified in the genus Eurybia rather than Aster, but it's close enough), they are all welcome to put on a show in my borders. Asters are great pollinator plants, often covered in bees, bee-mimics, and butterflies during warm latesummer and autumn days.

One of the newly added, lower-growing named asters in my garden is 'Anneke', a dumosus variety. You can make these as well as the taller varieties bushier and even more floriferous, though a bit later-flowering, by cutting them back in June or early July to about half their height. They will then be less prone to blowing over in the rains and gales of September, and produce even more stems of brilliant blossoms.

One of my favourites is 'Jenny', which is planted under a 'Snow Pavement' rose, and the hot pink of the aster is cooled and charmed by the pale lavender of the rose. Again, the buds just opening are as delightful (in my mind) as are the fully-flushed blossoms that will be here in a couple of days.

In my front border, a Michaelmas or New York aster named 'Dragon' (A. nova-belgii 'Dragon') is producing a vivid display of bright purple-blue flowers. It's new this year, and I've marked it because I want to move it a little more mid-border; this year it's only about a foot tall, but I've found in subsequent years the Michaelmas daisies can get fairly tall, especially if I happen to forget to prune them in late spring or early summer.

A. nova-belgii 'Puff' is another of my favourites with its pure white flowers that resemble miniature shasta daisies. I first located this plant at the garden centre at Kingsbrae Garden in St. Andrews, New Brunswick, where it charmed me on sight. It has continued to be a delightful addition to my garden for several years, although 'Winston Churchill', a deep pink-wine variety I bought at the same time, shuffled off its mortal coil (or was possibly victim of my pre-laissez-faire aster weeding of years gone by).

My absolute favourite New England Aster, 'Alma Potschke' is not yet in bloom because of where it's planted in less than full sun (and I keep forgetting to move it until it's too large), so we wrap up this little ode to asters with an almost-as-brilliant variety, the delightful 'September Ruby'. I forgot to prune this one this past June, and it gets somewhat rumpled by catching the west wind in my back garden, but its hot-magenta flowers create a blaze of colour that never fails to cause a smile on my face.


  1. Dear Jodi, I regret to say that I have not come to terms with the new classifications and to me they all remain, at least for the present, Aster.

    I do understand what you say about their prefacing winter but we are only now just at the onset of autumn so one's thoughts must be firmly centred on today.

    I was delighted that you made mention of A. lateriflorus which I grow and which for some unknown reason is seldom seen in the UK. I also have A. divaricatus which is similar but whiter and more prostrate. But now that the more modern cultivars do not appear to suffer from mildew, as older varieties certainly did, there are so many which it would be really good to have in a garden to contribute to the 'Fallscape'.

  2. It is an exciting time Jodi... beautiful and great feeders these blooms attract us all... and yes ... well the flip side cannot be avoided either. Winter will have its way with us soon enough but not yet! Fall is one of my favorite times of year. Love your title and lovely Aster portraits. ;>)

  3. Your asters look lovely! I'm waiting for mine to bloom here....

  4. I love asters, Jodi. There's only one in my garden - a New England Aster, a pass-along plant my mom gave me. The original plant was in her mom's, my grandmother's, garden. I cherish this aster for its autumnal glory as its purple blossoms are always covered in butterflies and bees! Our summers are so hot that as a rule I whack them about an inch high in July, which weeds out the legginess and they are nice and full by October. Love your varieties! That hot-magenta one rocks my socks!

  5. Beautiful asters Jodi! I always say I need to add more but the variety around here is fairly limited. I only have the New York Celeste and some wild kinds. Around here, unfortunately, mums are king - or should it be queen?

  6. I have the same sentiments about asters too Jodi - they are one of the last flowers to bloom in drifts in my garden too though I will have to wait another few weeks before there are any substantial blooms to look at as I have just 3 little flowers that have opened their buds.

    I love that term Fallscaping. Over here in the UK we don't use the world fall to describe Autumn. But it was this time of the year that I started buying plants for my garden many years ago. One plant that I don't have but would make room for is Fothergilla as its foliage in the autumn time is wonderful.

    BTW back to asters - do you ever get mildew on some of yours?

  7. Forgot to mention Jodi that I bought Aster lateriflorus 'Lady in Black' a few weeks ago. I can't wait for it to get established.

  8. Hi Jodi, thanks for the aster view and preview. You have a fabulous assortment and even know their names, impressive! I have to call them asters as well. Some of ours are just beginning, the New Englands start early, get whacked to the ground and are now at blooming size again to add some pinks and purpley blues. There are many white ones that came with the property, many different shapes and sizes, that will never be identified. And that's okay! :-)

  9. Typo: it's Symphyotrichum, not Symphytotrichum.

    Also you should edit "No one will scold you, unless it's some taxonomist with nothing better to do." to "No one will scold you, unless it's some taxonomist with nothing better to do, or Mr. Subjunctive, who doesn't have anything better to do either."

    Not that I'm actually scolding. There are a few names I've declined to change too, in defiance of the taxonomists. Who will no doubt change half of them back in a couple years anyway.

  10. I love our native asters here, especially as their bloom period is quite long. Ours look a lot like your wild white wood aster. You're right though, Asters do seem to herald the end of the summer bloom season, and I'm really not yet ready to move on to fall.

  11. Jodi, your asters all look great. I have only one plant in bloom, the other should follow soon. They would benefit from a sunnier location. Do like the magenta colored one, must look for one next spring.

  12. I've tried gettign my calico asters established, dying to see them, but the rabbits get them. Finally this year I appeared to have saved half of one and see buds. Love asters, all forms from big leaf to tartaricus to calico to new england. Fall is the 2nd most floriferous in my garden.

  13. Ode to asters is a hit post, jodi. Of course, your poetic description of these 'floriferous, colourful, flourishing' beauties is a perfect meld with your grand photos of these delightful blooms. Now i wish i had some too ... and will purchase some to brighten up bare spots in the garden. Like mums, I treat them as annuals since they take up precious spring/summer room and like you, inadvertently weed them out in spring.

  14. I love the asters. Mine are just coming in to bloom here on the west coast. I must look for some of the different varieties you mentioned. I could have a garden full of color at this time of the year.

  15. Those are beautiful! I'll have to try growing Asters.

  16. I have a New England aster in my garden for the first time this year and I'm waiting for it to bloom. Your pictures make me all the more eager - and now I want to add other varieties of asters as well.

  17. Great post Jodi, I love asters but they don’t love my 10B zone.

  18. HI again Jodi, love the title… don’t we all ;-)

    Funnily enough I think the aster is an underestimated and underused plant here in the UK. I love its simple cheery blooms. I really should add some more to my garden for this time of year. I do have little Spring flowering ones. I’ll come back here with a notebook…. Wonderful photos :-D

    Like Rosie, I too like the fallscaping term :-D

  19. Hmmm...it says 'your comment will be visible after approval', but I haven't commented yet. (??)

    Anyhow, your asters are stunning, what a beautiful array of colours! I am impatiently waiting for mine to open, it's been so cold lately I'm not sure that some will get to bloom this year. The buds are formed, but have been stalled for some time.

  20. Love asters, I mean I really love them! I especially love the natives, but must admit the "Monch" is one of the longest bloomers in my garden. The biggest aster is the Siberian and it's the one that brings in the Monarchs! gail

  21. Hi Jodi,
    Thanks for your comment on my GBBD post, and letting me know the goldenrod isn't 'Little Lemon'. I wish I had a better memory.

    I love this post! They'll always be asters to me. I'm not sure that many kinds grow around here. I have several kinds, though, including a couple kinds of 'Woods' ones. I have a few volunteers here and there that I decided to let grow.

    You sure have some beauties! I agree with you about the dread to have summer be gone, but love of seeing the blooms. Plus they tease us so with their buds for awhile before they open up.

  22. I think 'Alma' might be my favorite aster too, Jodi. It is the same bright pink as my just-starting-to-bloom Crepe myrtle.

    I suppose these faceless taxonomists need something to do but sheesh.

  23. Another informative post Jodi, thank you.

    Asters have only recently caught my eye - I think in the UK they have been rather "unfashionable" in recent years.

    I have two (lady in black & Jenny) - but after reading this post I think more will be added to the garden in the future... Like Shirl I will be retuning to the post with a notebook and pencil.



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