(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on January 16, 2010. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
Fleabanes...where does one start to describe this vast group of plants? For the moment, there are well over 200 species of Erigeron, many of them native to North America. I say ‘for the moment' as plant taxonomists have been very busy lately reclassifying the North American Asteraceae and no doubt, more than a few Erigeron may end up on the chopping block! As an example, I don't know if there are even any true Asters left in North America. But I digress. Fleabanes on the whole, are relatively small-stature plants that appear very similar to asters, however, they mostly bloom early in the season while most asters are late summer to fall-bloomers. The flowers are most commonly white, pink or purple shaded but rarely, may be yellow. They include annual, biennial and perennial species. Some can be troublesome weeds while others have very diminutive, non-showy blossoms. But there are plenty of attractive, garden-worthy species.
Most fleabane are rather undemanding plants. Full sun and well-drained soil are their main requirements. Many exhibit reasonable drought-tolerance. The taller types are ideal for the front of the border (even the tall ones are mostly under 90 cm height). Most are under 30 cm making them ideal for rock gardens. They are generally easy from seed not requiring any special treatment. Many are also easily divided. The taller cultivars provide wonderful, long-lasting cut-flowers and all the fleabanes are very attractive to bees and butterflies. Depending on the species, they may be grown from zone 9 to zone 2.
Two standard border fleabane hybrids are 'Azure Fairy' and 'Pink Jewel'
There are way too many fleabanes to describe individually so I will touch upon the most popular types. Perhaps the most well-known are the border types that originate mostly from E. speciosus, E. glaucus and E. peregrinus, all species native to western North America. There are numerous named cultivars, ranging in height from 45 to 75 cm (60 cm being the most common height). Colours vary from white, through shades of pink, lavender and violet to nearly true-blue and red. Blooms may be single, semi-double of fully double. In themselves, the wild ancestral species are as equally garden-worthy as their modern-day offspring. They all bloom mid-summer. Growing 30-50 cm is another western fleabane called E. glabellus. It may be used along the front of the border as well, but can also be used in a large rock garden setting.
Above are E. glabellus and E. speciosus
The other more popular fleabanes are small alpine types best suited for rock gardens. One of the most widespread species in North America is E. compositus, a tufted species with single white flowers in late spring-early summer. Similar is E. pinnatisectus, with finely cut foliage but lavender blossoms. Another choice alpine species is E. leiomerus which forms a small mat with 10 cm stems topped with good-sized lavender-blue flowers. Similar is E. simplex, another small species with purple-blue flowers. The only native fleabane in my area is a delicate species called E. hyssopifolius. This one forms a tufted mound with somewhat trailing stems ending in white flowers. For gardeners in the western U.S. and Canada, there are several other desirable alpine fleabanes to choose from.
Above (left to right) are E. compositus, E. pinnasectus and E. hyssopifolius
There are only a handful of yellow-flowered fleabanes and most of these have proven to be challenging to grow outside their native areas. One notable exception is E. aureus, a delightful tufted species with numerous 10-15 stems topped with one-inch daisies from late spring through early summer. In cool summer regions like my home (Newfoundland, Canada) this fleabane blooms from late May through September!
Shown above are E. aureus and E. karvinskianus
A very popular trailing species is E. karvinskianus, a species native to Mexico. This plant is often sold as a bedding annual for trailing over rock walls or hanging baskets. A profusion of white or pink-tinted blooms are produced for months on end. This one is only hardy to zone 7 so is only suitable as a perennial in mild climates. This species can become a little weedy in mild regions and is now naturalized throughout southern Europe, New Zealand and Australia.
As you can see, the more showy members of the genus Erigeron are delightful plants worthy of a place in any garden.
I would like to thank the following people for the use of their pictures: EstelleMirage (Pink Jewel), george4tax (E. karvinskianus) and poppysue (E. speciosus).