March 10, 2010

Let asters add color to your fall

— It's been this way for generations. The rough and untamed American gets shipped off to Europe, picks up a bit of culture, and then is shipped back to America and meets with great success.

Oh, I'm not talking about the post-graduation backpacking trip. I'm talking flowers, specifically asters.

Asters are a huge family of plants, but the ones called Michaelmas daisies (mostly in England) are either New England asters (Novae-Angliae) or New York asters (Novi belgii).

''There are a gazillion of them,'' said Deb Bedard of Springvale Nurseries. ''They were pasture plants, and in the early 1900s the asters were sent over to England, and the gardeners there had to show us how it was done and created these cultivars. And in the 1990s we started bringing them back.''

They come into bloom in August and last until October, so they provide a lot of fall color and are a major contrast to chrysanthemums, which are the flowers almost everyone counts on in the fall. They have daisy-shaped blossoms, but they are small -- usually less than an inch in diameter.

Bedard said almost all of the asters sent over for hybridization were New England asters or New York asters, so she thinks you could get by with calling them natives.

As native wildflowers, New England asters are taller -- they grow up to 6 feet -- and then, often, flopping. The common treatment was to cut the stalks in half in June to keep them shorter.

New York asters are shorter, Bedard said, but are more susceptible to diseases such as powdery mildew.

Most people are going to buy the hybrids.

''They are a very sturdy perennial,'' said Susan Babb, horticulturist at O'Donal's Nursery in Gorham. ''They are ideal for late-season colors. We are carrying both tall ones and short ones, and you get the whole gamut of colors.''

All of the asters have a yellow center, but the petals can go from white to red to dark purple.

Bedard and Babb both said ''Alma Potschke,'' a New England aster with a bright magenta flower, is attractive and very popular. It grows to 3 feet, and can stand a bit of staking.

''Purple Dome,'' another New England aster, is shorter at about 18 inches, and works better in the front of the border.

Bedard mentioned ''Winston Churchill'' and ''Professor Kippenburg'' as New York asters that she likes.

Woods Blue, Woods Pink and Woods Purple are very popular New York asters, and grow to about a foot high.

But if you want an even shorter aster, Babb likes Aster ericoides ''Schneegitter,'' which amounts to a ground cover. It is native to the United States, but I haven't figured out if it is part of the New York/New England pairing.

All of the asters need full to part sun, and they don't like clay or moist soil. They are hardy to Zone 3, which means they will grow anywhere in Maine.

Bedard and Babb said the asters should be divided quite frequently -- every two or three years. As the clumps get larger, the plants tend to die in the middle, so you should take your new plants from the edge.

Bedard said asters are great in a butterfly garden, partly because they provide food for the butterfly larvae.

Bedard had a lot of aster trivia for me. The name ''aster'' comes from their star shape, coming from the Greek ''astro.'' And the number of petals on an aster is always a fibonacci number, which is a progression that creates a spiral in nature.


I called Genevieve Coombs at Roosevelt Trail Garden Center and asked about asters, and she took me down an entirely different trail -- Stokes asters, with the botanical name Stokesia laevis.

Stokesia are aster relatives, but are native to the American Southeast and are Zone 5, not as hardy as the New York and New England asters.

''They are a good plant, a little more delicate and finely textured than most mums,'' Coombs said. ''They don't get too big, 12 to 18 inches, and the flowers are about 2 inches across.''

Two varieties that Coombs mentioned specifically were ''Peachies Pick,'' which she said is a gorgeous pink, and ''Mary Gregory,'' a yellow variety.

Tom Atwell can be contacted at 791-6362 or at:

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