Greek mythology tells us that the goddess of innocence and purity, Astraea, was last of the immortals to abandon Earth when the gods fled to Mount Olympus. Zeus placed her among the stars to become the constellation Virgo. From there she scattered stardust upon Earth. Wherever it settled, star lowers bloomed. We call them asters, a name derived from the Greek word for star.
The aster family is large, containing 250 members. These include annuals, biennials, perennials, and a few small shrubs. The latter are native to South Africa where they thrive in sunny, well-drained situations. The others are native to Europe, Asia and North America where they prefer consistent moisture. Many are shade-tolerant. Here I see them blooming along the roadside in autumn as they are native to our Eastern forests. They are also native to western Canada and the Rocky Mountains.
Asters have yellow centers surrounded by a corona of strap-shaped petals of blue, pink, white or yellow. The most popular garden varieties are Michaelmas daisies (Aster nova belgii) and New England asters (Aster novae anglias). Their growth habit may be mounding or erect. The erect ones tend to be rather tall, three or more feet in bloom, and may require staking.
With either mounding or erect asters, it is a good idea to pinch them back by half around Memorial Day to encourage bushier plants. I try to pinch mine back around the Fourth of July as well if they are getting too huge. They all flower in autumn and are very attractive to butterflies. Asters need to be divided every third year to maintain vitality. This ensures that if you like a variety, you will have more of it to use and share.
Alma Potschke is a popular pink aster. It is about three feet tall and generally stands on its own stems. Bluebird has great color, but at four feet, tends to fall over unless supported. Frankly, I found it too much trouble and removed it.
Purple Dome is a tidy mound of purple daisies about 18 inches tall and wide. I have never had to pinch it back and find it trouble free. October Skies is a mound of a different dimension. It does bloom well into October, which is great. However, it needs to be pinched twice to prevent it from engulfing neighboring plants. There is a series called Wood’s Asters which are eight inches tall. I found them to be disappointingly short lived.
In the Victorian language of flowers, asters represent patience, daintiness and love. The flowers were exchanged as love tokens in that era.
In the language of today’s florists, asters are September’s flower. Very appropriate as Virgo reigns over this month as well.
Master gardener Ann Bartlett never lets lack of familiarity with a plant stop her from trying it in the ornamental beds around her home.