Autumn’s Asters

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As seen in this photo from the web, most garden centers and even supermarkets are loaded with ubiquitous, rounded chrysanthemums in fall hues at this time of year. Mixed with pumpkins, gourds, and maybe even some decorative corn, chrysanthemums seem to be the standard or obligatory American decor of fall. I’ve never loved mums, mainly due to their short bloom period. The only “Mum” I love is my “Mum” — the British word for my wonderful mom who celebrates her birthday today! Oh how I adore my dear mom and wish her the happiest of birthdays!

At some point during the 1990s I planted the front borders of our Virginia home with mounds of brick-red mums in fall, but the wastefulness I felt after digging them up in December to replace with hardy pansies convinced me not to plant them the following year. I also don’t enjoy their smell (stinky! sometimes used to repel insects!) or their stiff uniformity and breakable branches.  With plenty of TLC and some luck, dedicated gardeners have success keeping mums alive beyond their first bloom season, but realistically in most climates mums are regarded and sold as annuals to consumers eager for fall color. They’re sold at the time of year when they really have little chance to develop roots before winter hits, and would stand a better chance at becoming rooted, hardy perennials if sold in the spring. I did try cutting back some potted yellow mums and saving them, also in the 1990s, and they survived the cold of December, but looked dreadful; I didn’t have any desire to save them until spring and I didn’t have a greenhouse to protect them. That was the official end of my adventure with mums!  Recently I read that another drawback to mums is that they don’t offer much for pollinators. That makes sense, when you view their tightly petaled blossoms.

Chrysanthemums are cousins to asters, both belonging to the huge daisy family, Asteraceae.  Aster means star, and these faithful perennial alternatives to mums offer beautiful fall color, many native options, plenty of pollen for the bees and butterflies, a wide range of shapes, plus the promise of returning each year. The hues of asters are limited to purples, blues, pinks, and whites.

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I’m a fan of the lanky growth pattern of asters versus the stiff mound of most mums. I’m happy that the original owners of Coppertop chose to plant asters throughout the perennial beds.

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This arching aster has grown over three feet tall to fill the space beneath the grapevine.

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These asters are teeming with butterflies and bees. They have a much more generous middle with larger central florets than do mums. These can be excellent forage and provide both pollen and nectar.

It’s no surprise that I favor the white asters! These are blooming in spots all over Coppertop.

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Aster experts recommend pinching the plants back twice during the growing season, once on Memorial Day and once on 4th of July, making the chore easier to remember. This increases the bushiness of the plants and helps to avoid “aster ankles” which are the unfortunate-looking brown and barren lower stems. Planting other low-growing plants in front of asters also helps.

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Perhaps this variety is the New England aster “Purple Dome” — Symphyotrichum novae-angliae — since it has a compact growth habit, barely reaching one foot high.

 

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