Come autumn, asters just hitting their stride

Posted Oct. 24, 2008, at 7:01 p.m.

The glow is unmistakable, sparkling in the perennial wasteland left from a vigorous summer of growth.

Not a surprise, really, when your Latin name translates to “star.”

The past month was showtime in my garden for the aster, an unassuming plant in spring and summer that more often resembles a weed before its telltale flowers burst forth in autumn.

The New England aster, or Aster novae-angliae, is a native plant for our region, growing wild along roadsides and in fields. Because it is a wildflower, it easily can be overlooked as a candidate for the perennial garden.

Don’t make that mistake.

Coming on the heels of tall phlox and rudbeckia, asters extend the bloom time of perennial beds well into October. When everything else is fading away, asters are just hitting their stride, with the flowers lasting several weeks. As the leaves on the trees turn to shades of red, gold and orange, the purples, blues and pinks of the aster provide a sharp contrast to that warm autumn radiance.

The result is that both benefit from the comparison.

On a cold, gray day in late September when the leaves were just starting to turn on a few trees, I wandered into the front yard to look over this year’s crop of asters, which had just come into full flower. It was so chilly that the bees had landed en masse on the asters and were barely moving on each bud, taking minutes to circle the center disk and seemingly unwilling to fly to the next bloom. The bigger the clump of flowers, the more bees clinging.

Once I got over that sight, I realized that the display of asters this year was enormous. After years of adding the occasional aster when I found one I liked, this season’s blooms struck me as profuse.

I had some pale pinks here, a lilac there and a darker purple over there. The most striking had to be ‘Alma Potschke,’ a radiant rose-pink variety that I had mail-ordered a few years back from Fieldstone Gardens (www.fieldstonegardens.com, 923-3836) in Vassalboro. The single plant was now a hearty clump, swaying under the weight of the bees tiptoeing in the blooms.

The explanation for this good year could be the conditions of the past few years. Asters are simple to grow but prefer moist soil. After several years of above-average rainfall, the plants have become well-established, putting on a show I’d not seen before.

Another great thing about New England asters is variation in the height. ‘Alma Potschke’ comes in at a towering 3 to 4 feet while ‘Purple Dome,’ a deep purple confection, is lucky to hit 18 inches at the most. The “National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers” says that the wild version can be anywhere from 3 to 7 feet tall.

Seven feet?

I think I feel faint.

There are a number of wild asters, but New England asters are recognizable by the number of rays on each bloom, usually around 40, the most of all native asters. I like to think they look a bit more exuberant than their close relatives, such as the New York aster with its flowers resembling the look of a manicured daisy with its fewer rays around each center disk.

Speaking of those center disks, I came across some interesting minutiae on the difference between asters with a yellow disk and those with a reddisk center.

According to the Connecticut Botanical Society’s Web site, the centers start off yellow but turn reddish on many aster varieties after they’ve been pollinated.

Why, those busy little bees.

jpineo@bangordailynews.net

www.janinepineo.com

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