A wild aster, thriving in a New England meadow.
Quick! What’s the first plant you think of when I say, ” roadside fall flowers?”
Here’s a hint: I’m thinking of a native plant that blooms from August through October, from the Canadian Maritimes to California and Ontario to New Mexico.
Did you guess aster*?
It’s easy to take this plant for granted. After all, wild asters grow nearly everywhere in North America. In my neck of the woods, New England aster, New York aster, white wood aster and many others dot the landscape with their starry, golden-centered flowers at this time of year. Some tend toward the purple, blue and pink range. Others, such as the lovely and prolific heath aster (Aster ericoides), bear clouds of white blooms. Regardless of color, butterflies adore aster flowers and depend on them for food and nectar.
The fact that wild asters grow abundantly and in so many climates makes them a good choice for low-maintenance, native plant, and butterfly gardens. Luckily for gardeners everywhere, European plant breeders took asters across the Atlantic about 100 years ago and developed scads of cultivars and hybrids with tidier habits and improved flower characteristics. They gave us old favorites like lavender-blue Professor Kippenburg and Monch, and bright-rose Alma Potschke. American breeders added many more to the selection, including some of my favorites, Purple Dome and October Skies.
The cut-flower trade grows many acres of asters, too, such as the heath aster Monte Cassino, because they’re especially useful as “fillers” in bouquets and have a long vase life.
Whether you cut them for bouquets or simply enjoy them in the garden, asters mix well with other autumn plants. Their purple-blue-pink flowers are stunning with yellow goldenrod, coneflowers, and sunflowers. Or try them with tall phlox, grasses and sedums.
Plant asters in full to half-day sun and give them loamy, well-drained soil. To keep the tall asters more compact, snip off the top one-third of the plant in early June. This trick causes the plant to grow more branches and flowers. Some asters are prone to powdery mildew, a fungal leaf disease. Planting in a breezy, sunny spot and avoiding water on the foliage helps prevent it.
Look for potted asters at garden centers and grocery stores throughout the fall. In early September, I added a few deep purple and pink ones to my window boxes for late-season color. I’ll plant them into the front garden this weekend where the traveling Monarch butterflies can enjoy them.
*If you didn’t guess aster, what favorite fall-blooming plant came to mind?
Green Goods Supervisor, Gardener’s Supply