Aster means “star”, and so the days of autumn hereabouts are full of stars.
New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) are arguably the Queens of this genus.
I grow the straight species, but there are are hundreds of cultivars. Just looking at the straight species in our garden provides a clear explanation why: there’s such wonderful variation in flower color. Blue, purple, pink – and many shades in-between.
A less endearing quality is the tendency of New England Asters to flop. This is a tall plant, growing up to 6′ or more in garden conditions. I cut some back in May and let others grow to their full height. However, even the ones I cut back need staking at some point in the summer.
New England Asters, and Asters generally, are an important source of late-season food for pollinators, including Monarch Butterflies. All of our Asters are buzzing with bees right now.
Possibly my favorite Aster is Short’s Aster (S. shortii). No disrespect to the botanist Charles Wilkins Short, but this flower could do so much better in the name department. Something with a little pizzazz, at least for the common name. Something that recognizes the astonishing masses of light blue flowers that positively smother this plant in September and October.
Other virtues of Short’s Aster: it is very shade tolerant, has never required supplemental watering in my garden, and is not fussy at all as to soil type.
One of my books on native plants warns that White Woodland Aster (Eurybia divaritica) can be super aggressive. That may be so in a warmer, wetter climate, but here this plant has established and spread at a very deliberate pace. It is spreading, however, helping to fill in for the ‘Purple Sensation’ Alliums that bloom in May and then start to die back.
Crooked-Stem Aster (Symphiotrichum prenanthoides) enjoys a damp spot in the garden. So does New England Aster, of course, but Crooked-Stem is a much more modest size.
I like the deeper blue flowers of Aromatic Aster (S. oblongifolium). I have had mixed success with this plant, though, because it really wants full sun and medium to dry soil. This fall I will plant some where it should get both. It is compact enough that you can plant it at the front of the border.
Some people say Calico Aster (S. lateriflorum) is weedy-looking. I guess they are right. Plus, plant it in rich garden soil and it will grow as big as a medium-sized shrub. I pulled out most of the Calico Aster some years ago (the bees objected and I got several stings). I’m still pulling it out, though I let it stay in some of the more challenging corners of the garden. “Go ahead,” I tell it. “Knock yourself out.” Of course, this is one reason why I have to keep pulling it out elsewhere. I will try to remember to cut it back before the flowers go to seed.
Here’s a view of the Front Garden from the sidewalk. The Brown-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia triloba) provides some contrast to the Asters’ blue and pink. I’m going to pull out some of the Rudbeckia and replace it with Stiff Goldenrod (Solidago rigida), so we have more contrast as to shape come next fall.
Asters are endearing flowers, they remind us that the garden is not done yet. They also are a reminder of colder days to come, but that is not their fault.