Last Week in September
“Asters, like prophets, are without honor in their own country.” said Louise Wilder Beebe. Known as “Michaelmas Daisies” because they bloom around St. Michaelmas Day on September 29, asters are held in high esteem by English and other European gardeners, while we in the United States distain them as common weeds. They have to compete with the vigorously promoted Asian chrysanthemums that are available at the grocery store, the hardware store, big-box stores, roadside stands, and the pumpkin farm, and asters come out a distant second.
My house in September
But our native asters are the last act in our vast prairie drama and their purple, lavender, azure, mauve, and white palette is dazzling. Aster cultivars, such as ‘Purple Dome’, ‘Alma Potschke’, and ‘October Skies’ are readily available at garden centers, but you will have to look further for the equally beautiful species asters. They are available at native plant nurseries and through native plant catalogs or, even better, from friends.
A melange of asters grow along my front sidewalk–New England, Smooth Blue, Heath, and Aromatic. The copper Little Blue Stem, Indian Grass, and the coral stems of Prairie Baby’s Breath are a stunning contrast to the purple, azure, and white asters.
The most colorful and best known of the species asters is New England Aster (Aster novae-angliae), with intense purple or occasionally rosy flowers that bloom from early September to the end of October. An upright, multi-stemmed plant, it grows 2-4’ tall on leafy stems. It is a common resident of wet and mesic prairies, calcareous fens, moist meadows, and conversely, dry pastures, roadsides, and railroad tracks. It grows well in clay soils.
Smooth Blue Aster (Aster laevis) is lavender, not blue, but it does have smooth leaves and stems. Its dark green leaves clasp the stems, a characteristic that makes this plant easy to identify. In the garden it grows up to 4’ tall in a narrow, upright fashion, but soon spills over nearby plants in fluffy billows of intense lavender-blue.
Cut back tall asters by one-half at the end of June and again at the end of July to make them branch out and inhibit their tall growth somewhat.
Gorgeous, isn’t it? It’s called serendipity–I had no idea that Prairie Baby’s Breath would turn to ravishing autumn sunset colors when I first planted it. Euphorbia corollata is listed in catalogues as Flowering Spurge, a name not nearly as appealing as Prairie Baby’s Breath. It does, indeed, resemble the more familiar Baby’s Breath (Gypsophila paniculata) of florists’ bouquets and old-fashioned gardens. The erect, stiff, 2-4’ stems of Prairie Baby’s Breath branch out all along the stem, then at the top form a whorl of stems that form a flat-topped compound corymb topped with dainty, five-petaled white flowers. It adds an airy note to any garden in July and August. Although it appears to be quite delicate, it is a common, hardy plant found in sand dunes, dry and mesic prairies, pastures, and along railroad tracks.
New England, Heath, and Aromatic Aster next to my front sidewalk. The tall stems are those of Prairie Dock.
The star of the final festival of the season is the Aromatic Aster (Aster oblongifolius), spilling over sidewalk and garden verges in a frothy, violet tangle. It makes a stunningly beautiful picture of smoke and flame when combined with the copper foliage of Little Bluestem in my parkway.
Aromatic Aster grows 6” to 3’ tall and spreads by creeping rhizomes. Extremely drought-tolerant, it is native to calcareous hills and dry calcareous prairies. Plant it in full sun next to a sidewalk where calcium is available or plant it on a hill with outcropping of limestone as pictured below.
I was asked by a friend to do more stories and photographs of my own gardens, rather than natural areas. Since convincing others to plant native plant gardens is my mission in life, it makes sense to do that. What do you think? What do you want to see?