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There are about 250 species of asters native to North America, Europe and Asia. Most asters are herbaceous perennials, meaning they will die back to the ground in winter. However, you can find some annual and biennial versions of asters as well.
Aster in Greek means “star”. They are in the daisy family and are notable for their starburst arrangement of bright petals, which most often surround a yellow center. The flowers are small but numerous, giving the plants the look of being “nothing but color” when in full bloom.
Asters have a rich history. They are also known as the Michaelmas daisy for their tendency to bloom around the autumn equinox, which coincides with the feast of St, Michael. The leaves and roots were used medicinally by Native Americans. Gardeners, though, mostly grow asters for their beautiful fall flowers and to provide late-season food for pollinators.
The two most common types of perennial asters are New England and New York. With many varieties of each available, it's often hard to tell them apart. In general, New York asters tend to be shorter plants with thin stems and smooth leaves. New England asters will be taller, bushier plants with thick stems and hairy leaves. Knowing which type you have isn't that important since they both are hardy in USDA zones 4 to 8 and are easy to grow, rugged plants.
However, selecting the right variety is more important. The flower colors can include white, pink, purple, blue and red. The plant size can be 1 to 6 feet tall. Some varieties have good disease resistance. So, it's important to select varieties based on your location, desired flower color and likelihood of disease problems.
The best way to select good varieties for your garden is to see what varieties grow well for friends, family members and neighbors, or to visit local public gardens. Always keep in mind, though, that microclimates created around your house can make a tried and true variety struggle or help a variety to survive. If you remember that asters like full sun, cool temperatures and moist, well-drained soil, you should be all set to try most varieties that are hardy in your area.
Native asters grow anywhere from mountaintops to along the ocean’s coast. If you’re really looking for a native look in asters, consider some of these lesser-used species types. The wood aster tolerates shade better than other asters, grows 4 to 6 feet tall and produces clouds of tiny white flowers. The smooth aster grows to 4 feet tall and is known for good disease resistance. The aromatic aster grows 2 to 4 feet tall, has fragrant leaves and tolerates dry soil better than other aster types. Many of these are considered “wild” asters, even though there are cultivated selections of each. They are good additions to meadows, pollinator gardens, and abandoned areas for their use by native bees, butterflies and pollinators.
In the garden, plant asters in areas to succeed other earlier-blooming perennials or to complement late summer and fall bloomers. Tall varieties make great backdrops to early-blooming peonies, iris, daisies, and salvia. Short varieties are nice companions for low-growing perennials, such as everblooming daylilies and geraniums. Once the summer flowers such as echinacea, rudbeckia and coreopsis finish, asters are happy to take over the flower workload into fall.
To create an even more colorful fall garden, mix asters with other late bloomers such as Russian sage, sedum, goldenrod, and ornamental grasses for a stunning late-season color show. Plant taller asters behind bushier perennials in fall, such as chrysanthemums, to hide any dying lower branches on the asters.
There are many dwarf asters that are low-growing and make good additions to rock gardens and low-perennial borders. Asters can be used in containers as well. Dwarf varieties that only grow less than 1 foot tall make a nice complement to the traditional fall container arrangements. For example, the heath aster 'Snow Furry' produces clouds of white blooms that are pleasing when planted next to bright orange, purple or yellow mums or near ornamental cabbage or kale.
Per Plant - 3" Pot
Asters are also great in flower arrangements. Mix asters with flower stalks of ornamental grasses, late-season zinnias, and sedum in a vase. Cut asters for indoor flower arranging when the flower is fully open, preferably in the morning. Place the cut stem in a pail of warm water. When getting ready to arrange, remove the bottom leaves, cut the stem to the right height for the vase and slit the stem vertically to encourage more water uptake. Adding flower preservatives and changing the water daily will help extend the life of your cut asters and other flowers.
About the Author: Charlie Nardozzi is a nationally recognized garden speaker, author, consultant, radio and TV show host. He delights in making gardening information simple, easy, fun and accessible to everyone. Visit his website, GardeningwithCharlie.com for how-to gardening information, and for more about Charlie.
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