Asters are native in just about every country or continent
Just about every region on Earth is home to a native aster. There are over 600 species world-wide and they come in a large number of shapes, sizes and colors. They are tough plants that adapt to many climates and conditions, so humans have used them for thousands of years as decorative and medicinal plants. No cottage garden is complete without at least a few. Asters shine in pollinator gardens as well because they generally bloom in autumn when there is a real need for food sources. They are cheerful plants that require little maintenance and are one of the few plants that bloom even in partial shade. Even if you don't have an in-ground garden, asters are quite happy in containers. Most North American natives are hardy in USDA zones 3-9, however there are a few that like arctic or high mountain conditions, so just about everyone except those gardeners in tropical and sub-tropical areas can find one suited for their own climates.
The ancient Greeks and Romans considered the aster holy
The word aster, which means star, comes from Latin, or Greek (it seems both languages claim the word) and there are a number of legends surrounding the plants. The goddess, Astraea, known as the star maiden, has a couple of legends associated with her. It seems that there is a flood story in Greek or Roman myth that states that she was so distraught with the muddy and desolate conditions after the flood waters receded that her tears sprang into the aster plants we know today. She is supposedly responsible for the stars in the sky too. Both the Greeks and Romans offered wreaths of asters to their gods on alters and they also burned aster bouquets as offerings. Asters get their name from her and of course their little rayed petals make them resemble stars.
Native Americans used the aster and had legends about its origin
Here in North America, the Cherokee have a legend about the origin of asters as well. It seems there were two warring tribes that had a huge battle and one tribe was wiped out, except for two maidens who hid in the woods. The Herb Woman deity saw them and took pity. She transformed one into a blue aster and the other into a white one, so that they would always be safe. Native peoples used all parts of the aster in their herbal pharmacy and as a food source as well. The flowers and leaves were steeped as a tea just like chamomile (which is an aster too, by the way) and the roots were used as a laxative. Across the Pacific, asters were used to treat hangovers and epilepsy. The leaves and flowers are non-toxic and were added to soups and stews as a potherb. Even today, you’ll sometimes see aster blooms in salads. For natural dye, the flowers, stems and leaves produce a number of shades in the yellow or gold family, depending on the mordant used. So, many people who dye yarn and fabric include them in their dyer’s gardens.
Growing asters in your garden
Aster flowers produce a large amount of nutritious pollen, so late foraging insects depend on them. Include the species versions in your pollinator garden for the best results. The named hybrids may be showier, have a longer bloom season or come in more colors, however they do not have as much usable pollen, so if you are planting for the bees, the wilder selections are the best choices. Asters grow best in full sun with regular moisture, however they are tough and adaptable. They will bloom in partial shade, however the plants will be leggier with fewer flowers. They will also tolerate some drought conditions, but the show will be smaller. Gardeners often shear asters back by half in mid-summer before the blooms form. This will produce a shorter and bushier plant. You can dead-head (remove faded blooms) to encourage more flowers to form as well. Plant seeds in early spring, winter sow, toss seed bombs, or purchase transplants from your garden center or by mail.
Leave a wild spot on your property for the critters
Most gardens, no matter how structured or informal have a spot for asters. I keep the local, native wild ones around the edges of my property. And since I encourage the common, everyday plants that most of my neighbors call weeds, I have a wonderful show come autumn with lots of asters, goldenrod, ironweed and snakeroot. The late foraging honeybees and migrating monarchs visit frequently and in large numbers. We all need to make a space for the wild things. Their habitat is being destroyed by progress every day. Leave a little messy spot here and there for wildlife. Besides the insects, small mammals and birds depend on the seeds and they also eat insects. Without a healthy ecosystem, we are doomed to inherit an Earth with less diversity and an impossible task of supporting its population.
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