In a few short days, the roadsides are transformed from the whites of daisy and Queen Anne’s lace and the blues of chicory, all imported plants that have made themselves comfortably at home, to the bright purples and blues of the native New England and New York asters and the froth of small-flowered white aster and calico asters. If you wander off along the marshy edges of old fields and into the woods, you’ll find flat-topped asters and wood asters rioting along with wavy-leaved asters.
The queens of September are the New York and New England asters with their brilliant pinks, rich purples and blues. The New England asters, the taller of the two, are rough stemmed giants among the native asters.
Sometimes growing to seven feet tall, they can be a most imposing addition to the fall garden. In my yard I have both purple and rose colored bushes that are easily six feet tall,
along with the miniature 'Purple Dome' hybrid,
in a diminutive 12 to 18 inches tall that can be accomodated even in a small garden.
New York asters are smaller (3 to 4 feet), mainly smooth-stemmed plants with flowers in bright blues and rosier purples. A plant that I rescued from a fence line is an almost electric blue in the Autumn dawn.
The New York and New England asters in my perennial border seem to have no qualms about cross pollenation and have thrown off several new colors ranging from fucshia to deep purple. These mixes have happily moved from my flower beds to the roadsides and pasture to the east, joining the wavy-leaved asters.
Wavy-leaved asters are compact bushy asters with pale lavender grey flowers that pop up in fields and yards. If left alone they will form round, bushy plants full of medium sized blooms bursting out over the period of a month or more. If mown, as those in our side yard are regularly, they will put up individual blooms between mowings, happily unbowed by their short stature.
Amidst the jewel tones of the New England and New York asters are the whites: wood aster, calico aster, small-flowered white aster and flat-topped white aster, like bright candles in the Autumn dusk.
The first to bloom among the white asters is the wood aster, opening its starry flowers under the trees in late August. They can be found under the dappled shade of small clearings and further in the deeper woods, rooted in the black humus.
The flat-topped asters begin their bloom at about the same time, holding their full bright flowers at the top of their stalk of leaves at the edges of swamps and marshy woodlands. Around here, they inhabit old wet pasture land and the roadside swamps back in state forests. At heights up to seven feet, they present a most imposing sight.
The small-flowered white asters and calico asters come next. The flowers of the small-flowered white aster are tiny, between 1/4 and 1/3 of an inch across, but make up for their size in their number, blooming along the branches of the plant in closely packed multitudes. Give this plant a comfortably sized space in your garden and it will form a shrub sized clump, livening up the September days. They cross readily with the other asters and I have seen plants with pale pink ray flowers surrounding the yellow disks.
Calico Asters are so named because the white ray flowers can surround either yellow or purple disk flowers on the same plant. The aspect is one of an old fashioned calico fabric spread across the bushy plants, which can reach a height of 5 feet, but are often smaller.
Inviting the native asters into your garden can be rewarding in that you will extend your bloom from late summer into October, but they are not without problems. They all tend to drop their bottom leaves as they grow taller, leaving rather unattractive stems, and all are bounteous seed producers, loosing tiny fluffs of seeds in the October breezes. Plantings of midsized, bushy perennials like blue star, Amsonia tabernaemontana (staying with a native plant) can cover the knobby knees, and conscientious deadheading can take care of the seeds.
Native asters can sometimes be difficult to identify. The narrow leaved white asters, including calico and small-flowered asters interbreed readily, I have some small-flowered white asters that are really small-flowered pale pink or lavender asters. There are also several that have very similar flower colors and leaf shapes. In the writing of this article, I discovered that what I had been thinking of as stiff aster was really wavy-leaved aster. It's always good to learn something new.
Here is a link to a photo of my perennial border with asters in full bloom:
Here are the Latin names:
New England Aster Symphyotrichum novae-angliae
New York Aster Symphyotrichum novi-belgii
Wood Aster Eurybia divaricata
Calico Aster Symphyotrichum lateriflorum
Small White-flowered Aster Symphyotrichum racemosa
Flat-topped Aster Doellingeria umbellata
Wavy-leaved Aster Symphyotrichum undulatum
all photos are the property of Kathleen M. Tenpas and used with permission.
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on October 17, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)