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?

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6 Responses to Asters

  1. Rebecca Gale-Gonzalez September 29, 2011 at 4:00 pm #

    Love it! Thank you Pat.

  2. Roland Lauer September 29, 2011 at 7:03 pm #

    Your own garden may be limiting, but if you also showed photos of other gardens who have planted native gardens you could have more to cover and show this growing trend and your influence.

    • PatHill September 29, 2011 at 7:47 pm #

      I agree with you Roland. I have so many friends and clients with outstanding native plant gardens, including yours, which I plan to feature next week.

  3. Peggy Timmerman September 29, 2011 at 7:10 pm #

    Hi Pat,

    I enjoy seeing how you use the natives in garden settings. One important point about the asters is how much diversity there is in the family–we have at least 15 species on our property. Some are tall and need sun, while others grow in the woods, and those on our dry prairie tend to be small and would be great in a small garden setting. (stiff aster, silky aster, smooth aster). I think diversity is an important point to emphasize with those who are making the switch to natives. Create habitat, not just a garden!

    Peggy Timmerman
    Lone Rock, WI

  4. Susan Bryan September 30, 2011 at 1:45 pm #

    Thanks for showing pics of your garden pat! I love to see them, and if you had pics of other native gardens to include, that would be fun too.

  5. Valerie Blaine October 2, 2011 at 5:30 am #

    I think photos of both natural gardens and “wilder” places would be great. It is inspiring to see the photos of your garden!

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