Asters Famous and Obscure

I love asters. I love their clouds of little flowers, the way they positively hum with bees, the fresh color that they add to cool autumn days.

Short's Aster
Short’s Aster

In my garden there are a number of aster species, some commonly found in gardens, others more easily found in the wild. I want to write about three of these in this post.

New England Aster in the Island Bed.
New England Aster in the Island Bed.

New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) is perhaps the most common aster of all. There are at least 70 cultivars developed from the species. I grow the straight species, which is beautiful though it can become shaggy and a bit ungainly. The one above is over six feet tall even after I cut it back by half in early June.

New England Aster up close, with bee.
New England Aster up close, with bee.

The petals (ray flowers) are closely arrayed. The flowers of this aster seem more substantial than those of others in the genus.

NE Aster with Metallic Green Bee
NE Aster with Metallic Green Bee

Like other asters, New England Aster is popular with bees and other pollinators.

The flowers of New England Aster come in a range of colors.
The flowers of New England Aster come in a range of colors.

The flowers range in color from purple to blue to pink. This is an aster that likes sun and moist soil.

Compared to New England Aster, Short’s Aster (Symphyotrichum shortii) lives in obscurity. Which is too bad, because it is a plant with many fine attributes.

Short's Aster up close.
Short’s Aster up close.

The sky blue flowers are rather dainty but fetching, the rays a bit more sparse.

Short's Aster
Short’s Aster

However, they congregate in great numbers, almost covering the entire plant.

Short's  Aster with Blue Stem Goldenrod
Short’s Aster with Blue Stem Goldenrod

Short’s Aster is self-reliant, tolerates shade, and is not too fussy about soil. It grows to about 4′ in my garden, and is much less inclined to flop than New England Aster.

Short's Aster with ferns.
Short’s Aster with ferns.

I also like the name. Pronouncing the specific name shortii (shorty-EYE) makes a person feel more intelligent. All the names ending in “ii” are like that. I don’t know why, they just are.

Also, Short’s Aster is named after Charles Wilkins Short, a Kentucky botanist and physician from the first half of the 19th Century. Short was an avid scientist, an expert on medicinal plants, and an early opponent of slavery.

One last Aster I’d like to mention is Calico Aster (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum).

Calico Aster
Calico Aster

Calico Aster is more common than Short’s Aster but far less well-known than New England Aster. There are a handful of cultivars, but again I grow the straight species. The habit is dense and shrubby.

Calico Aster up close
Calico Aster up close

Calico Aster’s flowers are very tiny but very profuse. They are white with maroon centers. They are also extremely popular with pollinators. One of the few times I’ve been stung was when I was trying to remove a Calico Aster that was still blooming.

Do you have a favorite aster?

41 Comments on “Asters Famous and Obscure”

  1. I love them, as you say so do the bees. ‘Shorty- eye ‘ is new to me, I haven’ t seen it here.
    I wrote about my favourite asters on 30 September. My top 3 are Little Carlow, Ideal and Le Vasterival but it is difficult choosing favourites when there are so many beauties.

  2. I don’t know what most of my asters are, since they have re-seeded so much, so I couldn’t begin to pick a favorite. I did plant some ‘October Skies’ a few years ago, which is Aster oblongifolius and a nice mounding aster just covered with blue blooms. But most of mine are New England asters, I think–started from just one plant several years ago. Then there are the wild kind I didn’t plant at all that look much like your calico aster. I’ve given up trying to identify them, but I do appreciate their color in the fall and seeing the bees and butterflies go crazy over them.

  3. I am just getting started with asters; I don’t know why I resisted for so long. I’m growing S. novo-belgii ‘Purple Dome’ which is taking its time getting settled; S. novae-angliae ‘Winston Churchill,’ which is raspberry red and quite a show-off, and S. tataricus, which is a bit of a nuisance. It spreads more rapidly than I would like but is unfussed by location, so I simply need to move it to a forgotten corner of the garden and let the bees have at it. It’s blooming now for me in pretty deep shade. In sun it gets about 6 feet tall, but in shade it’s shorter, around 4 1/2 feet, much more manageable. I’m also tempted by ‘October Skies’ and may find one at the garden center in the next few weeks.

  4. My S. oblongifolius ‘October Skies’ is exactly what I need when the days are getting shorter and the weeks are getting colder. It makes me beyond happy to see the purple-blue of the flowers. I don’t know why I don’t have more of them!

  5. I have the perfect growing conditions for Asters, yet they don’t do well in my garden.
    I only have 2 left, both of which are new england varieties. Purple Dome and an unknown pink, as seen in my avatar.
    The new england variety are most popular here but having just checked my local nurseries webpage, I see they have a lot more than I realised. I must ask his advice on how to get the best out of them and give them one more chance before they are considered unwanted!
    Yours all look great whatever their shape and size Jason.

    • Your experience with Asters underscores a theory I have called the Theory of the General Perversity of Plants, which is to say you can always expect plants to confound the garden books in some significant way. Maybe the thing for your garden is to try some different species and cultivars.

  6. I embarrassingly admit that I don’t have much of a history with Asters. I thought my garden was too shady to grow them, but you have opened my eyes to some possibilities. I did plant ‘Vibrant Dome’ New England Asters last fall, and they’re doing very well, although they only started to bloom this week (must be the shade). I also started False Asters (Boltonia Asteroides) this year–they’re lovely, as well. Beautiful photos, Jason and Judy. (By the way, the Klehm’s near Rockford sounds great for next spring!)

  7. You and I have all the same asters. 🙂 But I also have a tall one with very teeny white flowers that shows up in different spots each year that I’ve always called frost aster. The pollinators go nuts for it. It’s very pretty and does well when cut back to control growth.

  8. Nice plants, they’re such a pretty wash of color along the roadsides and woodland edges this time of year. I have a few but no favorites, they’re nearly all the small white bloomers that come into the garden on their own. I like them all now, but will admit to ripping plenty out earlier in the season 🙂

  9. I love Asters because they give autumn a change of colour from the usual yellows and oranges. I’ve just been given some cuttings of a very tall Aster so maybe it is the species one you have. I want to create a border for autumn in the same way I have one for spring. It will need irrigation so it may be in the back of the back border or the LHB and I’ll remove the roses which never do all that well. Great post.

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