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Plant Profile: Asters

by Nel Newman

Our gardening grandparents may have known Asters as 'Starflowers', New England asters, or Michaelmas daisies. 'Aster' in Latin means 'star', they do thrive in New England (and quite nearly everywhere else), and Michaelmas Day comes at the peak of Aster bloom season. No wonder people get confused about this large family of mostly perennial plants. Over 200 species of Asters are native to both North America and Europe; transatlantic transplants began as early as the 1600s. Natives to both worlds and hybrids between them have earned their reputations as reliable garden stalwarts.

Asters belong in every garden, large or small, wild or well manicured, from windswept northern prairies to sunny subtropics. They can lend a blowsy cottage effect or form a crisply neat edging. All produce distinctive flowers, and attract butterflies across an incredibly wide range of plant sizes and habits. The leafy, multibranched plants reach from 6" to 7' tall, depending on variety. Fine textured flowers have silky, slender rays in purple shades, white, and even red surrounding red or orange disks. Their current popularity owes to recent wider availability of both the natives and hybrid varieties. One or more will be perfect for your garden.

All asters prefer full sun when grown north of Zone 7 and at least 6 hours of sun in zones 7-9. Give them good drainage and uncrowded growing conditions; soggy winters damage the crown and inadequate air circulation can lead to leaf diseases. Plant them so the crown breaks the soil surface, mulch around but not over it, and space as the variety demands to circumvent these problems. Any good garden soil will sustain asters, but extended drought reduces flowers and plant vigor. Keep the base of the crown mulched and gently work decaying mulch into the soil for continuous feeding.

Water asters deeply and regularly during the growing season. If leaf diseases persist, use dusting sulfur or spray with 1 T baking soda dissolved in 1/2 gallon of water weekly or as needed. Most varieties will topple over if not pinched back twice (spring and early summer) to encourage branching. Stake the tall ones early in the season anyway for best results. Cut stems down to ground level after flowering. Divide the clumps every other year, replant the new growth, and discard the very center. This treatment allows these fast growing plants to constantly renew themselves.

Success with asters often means selecting the right one for your garden. 'Wonder of Staffa' (Aster x frikartii) makes an especially fine show in small and low-maintenance gardens. Two to three feet tall, nearly as wide and beloved for its fragrance, this one also has a longer bloom season than other asters. Divide only after three years. 'Monch' (A. frikartii) has stiffer stems and flowers in a light shade of lavender blue.

A native of the Midwest and West, Aster oblongifolius thrives throughout zones 5-8. An excellent choice for edging at eighteen inches tall, these asters bloom in dazzling violet. At the other end of the spectrum, the Tartarian aster (A. tataricus) approaches seven feet tall with lower leaves often two feet long. This huge plant bears violet blue daisies in fall, makes an ideal garden companion for perennial sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius), and is hardy to Zone 3.

Oregon Pacific asters thrive in the Northwest. These hybrids blend a native and one of the michalemas types to produce plants 12" to 30" tall that are best described as floriferous.

The popular name 'Michaelmas daisies' actually can refer to two different types of asters:

New England asters (A. novae-angliae) can be distinguished as being a taller plant with flowers that close at night. Their fabulous yellow disks with bright purple, violet, or pink rays stay open for weeks in late summer and early fall.

New York asters (A. novi-belgii) are shorter plants that have been hybridized widely to produce free-blooming plants in vivid shades of fuschia, violet, neon pink, and white. Selected for mounding habit, these respond well when cut back in spring and early summer.

ASTERS FOR EXTREMES:

Hardy Aster alpinus (A. alpinus) blooms in late spring unlike other asters. A foot tall or less, with flowers up to two inches across sprouting up from a rosette of leaves, alpinus thrives where winters are coldest. The violet blue, pink, white, or red daisies thrive in rock gardens, slopes, and banks.

Deep south gardeners (below zone 8) can depend on Linear Leaf Native Aster (A. hemisphaericus). Two feet tall with skinny leaves often eight inches long, this good looking plant sports light purple flowers in late summer.



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