By Maria Price
Fall is the time for asters and there are so many species and varieties of native asters. They all seem to attract a diverse array of pollinators.
They are a classic North American roadside and pasture plant. Many named varieties have been improved and are extremely beautiful in the garden. With many new cultivars, you can be a lover of native plants and come away with something that doesn’t look like a weed.
Botanical taxonomists have changed the genus name for the American aster to Symphyotrichum. Asters range in height from one to six feet and are characterized by having alternate leaves and multiple flower heads in numerous colors. One of my favorite fall asters is Bluebird Smooth Aster (Aster laevis Bluebird) and it loves full sun. The lanceolate (or lance-shaped) leaves are smooth and the flowers put on a show of 3- to 5-foot-tall branched stems filled with a firework-like display of large, deep lavender to violet flowers.
Asters are wonderful because they attract bumblebees. Our native bumblebees are declining and are close to being endangered. The Patuxent Research Refuge in Laurel has a bumblebee project for citizen scientists. It involves recording bumblebees with a smartphone and taking a picture of the bumblebee on the plant with the plant name. Contact Jenan El-Hifnawi at [email protected]. She will send simple instructions if you want to be involved. If you grow Bluebird aster, you will have a lot of happy bumblebees.
Another aster I love is Aster cordifolia Avondale or wood aster. It has much tinier flowers on large bouquet-like stems and is almost cloud-like. It prefers a shadier sight.
Another popular fall aster is Aster novi-belgii or New York aster, or Michaelmas daisy. These rival New England asters for color and diversity. They are generally shorter than the New England asters and are more manageable in the garden. Michaelmas daisies marked the beginning of fall harvest festivals once popular in Europe. The flowers represented good fortune with the harvest in earlier times. Good varieties of New York asters are Blue Gown and Woods Pink. With such variety, it is easy to see why these autumn perennials take center stage in so many gardens.