Lakeside Nature Center
Backyard Wildlife Habitat
Asters are one of the glories of the fall perennial garden. Their gorgeous blues, pinks and whites flourish when the most other flowers have gone to seed. They start blooming in the heat of August and keep on blooming until November, long after the first frost. Did you know that the asters in your backyard are descended from species growing in our woods and prairies?
Asters, along with daisies, sunflowers and chrysanthemums, are members of the compositae family. What appears to be a single flower is actually a composite of many smaller flowers. Look closely at an aster in bloom; there are hundreds of little flowers growing on disks; each one produces just a single seed. The big ‘petals that ring the flower head are also individual flowers, called ray flowers. When the seeds are ripe and fall away, you have a pitted disk where the tiny flowers blossomed.
There are 29 species of asters growing in Missouri; 20 of them grow almost everywhere in the state and in many different habitats. Some prefer moist prairies, some like glades and open rocky shelves, all like full sun. Migrating Monarch butterflies depend on aster flowers for the nectar to keep them going on their trip to Mexico. Birds depend on the seeds of hardy asters for winter food. Many asters are resistant to rabbits and serve as hosts to butterflies.
The longest blooming aster is the Oblong-leaf Aster (Aster oblongifolius); it starts the season in July and continues until frost. It lives in glades and open rocky slopes and grows about two feet tall. It has blue or rose colored ray flowers and yellow disk flowers. This aster is so aromatic that its common name is Fragrant Aster.
Both the White Heath Aster (A. pilosus) and the New England Aster (A. novae-angliae) start blooming in August and stay blooming until late November. In fact, another common name for the White Heath Aster is the Frost Aster. Growing the two plants together, as we do in the butterfly garden at Lakeside Nature Center, produces a wonderful late season flower display with little or no work on the gardener’s part. The New England Asters produces hundreds of purple or pinkish flowers and is often covered with butterflies. The White Heath Aster generally has white flowers, but an occasional purple one will appear. Both these plants grow as tall as five feet and happily increase in your garden.
There are many other asters you might enjoy planting in your garden. The Southern Prairie Aster (A. paludosus) has large blue-violet flowers and blooms in late summer. It isn’t common in the wild, but plants are available in nurseries. The Smooth Aster (A. laevis) forms large pyramidal clusters of flowers on strong stems in late summer and has particularly attractive deep green foliage. Sky Blue Aster (A. azureus) is covered with dozens of bright blue flowers in September; it stands about 3 feet tall and butterflies love the nectar. Heath Aster (A. ericoides) is another of the late blooming asters
Most of the species discussed in this article are available from nurseries participating in the Missouri Grow Native program. For more information about Grow Native, check their website at www.grownative.org.