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Tales from a Plant Addict

Fun (& a few serious) facts, tips and tricks for every gardener, new and old.

Asters


When you say fall flowers, most people immediately think of chrysanthemums. An equally beautiful choice for the fall garden, but one which is often overlooked is the aster.

The name aster comes from the ancient Greek word astron, meaning "star", referring to the shape of the plant's flowers.

Asters come in a wide range of flower sizes and colors, but have the same basic structure. Other than their distinct star shape, they vaguely resemble daisies, one of their cousins. What we commonly call the flower is actually a grouping of hundreds of tiny flowers, or florets.

The center of each flower is filled with flat yellow to orange disc florets, the perimeter surrounded by ray florets which each have one colored petal attached. Aster petals can be many colors, from red to pink, blues to lavender and purple, and white. Most are an inch or two in diameter, but some species may be smaller.

The overall size of an aster plant ranges from six inches to eight feet tall, depending on the species and cultivar. Most cultivars for home gardens are in the six inch to three feet tall range.

Asters are split into two main groups, the New York and New England types. New York types tend to be shorter than about a foot, and New England types are generally taller.

Aster leaves are very long and narrow, and sometimes are a bit hairy. The plants themselves occasionally become leggy and flop over during the growing season. Pinching or shearing back periodically through midsummer will help encourage branching and bushy compact growth.

I have been known to remove as much as half of the height from my asters in mid-June. While they look a little sparse at first, they come back very thick and sturdy with many branches and flowers by the fall.

Most asters are grown for their fall blooms, but depending on the species, some bloom in the summer. One summer-blooming cultivar I have planted is a Frikart's Aster (Aster x frikartii) a selection made from a cross of Aster amellus x Aster thomsonii.

The original cross was made in Switzerland in the 1920's, and from it the cultivars 'Monch' and 'Wonder of Stafa' were selected. I grew the cultivar 'Monch', which caught my eye because of its lavender blue flowers with orange centers. It was perfect for my Illini garden.

Frikart's Asters are easy to grow, and hardy here in our Zone 5b climate. Hardiness is increased with winter mulching, and waiting to cut the plant back until spring. Mine survived the winter just fine, but I lost it one year when we had an extended period of freezing temperatures following an early spring thaw.

Asters prefer well-drained soil in full sun. Once established, they will tolerate drought to some degree. They are susceptible to several fungal diseases if there is too much moisture present, including root rots.

Asters are one of the many plants susceptible to aster yellows, a disease caused by a tiny organism called a mycoplasma which is spread from plant to plant by leafhopper insect feeding. In general, affected plants appear yellow, and new growth is stunted and distorted. If plants are infected, they must be discarded to reduce risk of it spreading to other plants. There is no treatment and no cure.

Not every aster for sale is a perennial, but sometimes even those labeled as an annual can surprise you. I bought several a few years ago that have returned each year. I'm not sure whether the plant is overwintering, or it is re-seeding, but either way I have enjoyed their blooms each fall.

Overall, besides a haircut in mid-June, asters pretty much thrive on neglect in my garden. They are also incredible butterfly magnets. In the late summer and early fall, it is not uncommon to find multiple butterfly species enjoying the nectar of asters in the garden. Asters are a low maintenance plant with beautiful flowers that attract butterflies- a trifecta of great reasons to try asters in your fall garden this year.



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