All about asters

Sunday, September 21, 2008 | 12:00 p.m. CDT

Someday you may want to plant asters in your garden; then again, you may not. This is the season when the wild ones are blooming beautifully and with abandon over much of the country, after all, so why bother?

Well, that's the typical American attitude toward this plant. But hop across the Atlantic, and you'll find that the British feel quite differently.

Some history

Early in the 20th century, they fell so in love with these plants, especially two American species, that asters were extensively hybridized and have become permanent fixtures in cottage and formal gardens. American asters went full circle: After receiving their "European education," they found their way back across the ocean into many American gardens.

These highbrow hybrids have even shed their American name, coming back with the British name "Michaelmas daisy." Michaelmas is the feast of St. Michael the Archangel, celebrated in England on Sept. 29 - around the time asters are in bloom.

The two American species that most won the hearts of the British were the New England aster and New York aster. Both range far from New England and New York, though. You'll even find New England asters growing wild in New Mexico.

A popular couple

It's not easy to tell New England and New York asters apart, especially since the wild plants you see might also be offspring of chance matings of the two species. Generally, the New England aster is the larger of the two, growing up to 6 feet high and wide, with flowers a somewhat deeper violet.

Deliberate hybrids of either of these two asters have the yellow eyes of the species, but the petal color and plant size may vary. For instance, Purple Dome is a New England aster with purple flowers on a 2-foot-tall plant, while the popular Alma Potschke aster sports salmon-magenta flowers on 3-to-4-foot plants.

Among New York asters, alert has crimson blooms, Marie Bullard blue and snow flurry white, of course. Even when fully grown, Professor Kippenburg, a variety of New York aster never growing more than a foot high, is a tyke.

Growing possibilities

If you want to grow native asters, no need to stick only to New York and New England types. White wood aster, a 2-foot-high plant bearing inch-wide flowers with yellow eyes, is perfect for the partly sunny edge of a woodland. Blue wood aster is similar, but in blue. Heath aster does indeed have short needlelike leaves similar to those of heaths. The whole plant, including the small white flowers, is pleasantly aromatic.

OK, not all the best asters are true-blue American. Frikart's asters were developed in Switzerland by mating two European species. What they have going for them is length of bloom time: They'll put on a show from July onwards. Two of the best varieties are monch and wonder of stafa, both with lavender blue blooms.

Better together

Asters growing in gardens have many congenial companions. The yellow blossoms of coreopsis, for instance, can keep step with those of Frikart's asters all summer long. For late bloom, the white blossoms of autumn snakeroot or Canadian burnet, or the pale blue blooms of Russian sage are good companions alongside aster. For a feathery backdrop of pale gray plumes, plant Japanese silver grass behind asters.

Among the best companions for asters are the clear yellow flowers of goldenrod. Of course, this is a plant combination you can enjoy in the wild as well as in the garden.


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