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Asters: Late Summer Splendor

It’s been so hot and dry recently, I just haven’t had much interest in walking trails. Nevertheless, I packed up Navi, my favorite walking companion, and headed out to Holliday Lake State Park. I didn’t really expect to find anything blooming, but I was, oh, so wrong. In just a short half hour walk, I found several cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis) by the new foot bridge; a large patch of jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) on the banks of Saunders Creek; arrowhead or katniss (Sagittaria latifolia) just past the beach; Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), and ironweed (Vernonia spp.) growing in swampy areas; and several kinds of asters on the path down to the lake. Although most of these plants looked somewhat stressed from the recent lack of rain, they were still a pleasant surprise on a hot morning.

Now is the time of the year when asters come into their glory, and this year is no exception. It’s as if they’ve waited patiently all year to produce one final burst of woodland color before winter settles in with its grays and browns. The two asters I saw, Maryland golden aster (Chrysopsis mariana) and white wood aster (Eurybia divaricata) have larger blooms and are less weedy than many asters. Both make fine additions to the home garden.

The Maryland golden aster forms tight clumps and only grows to be 12-24 inches tall. Immature foliage tends to be very wooly, while mature leaves are generally smoother. The bright yellow flowers appear in clusters and resemble daisies that are about an inch in diameter. This aster is relatively drought tolerant.

To grow the Maryland golden aster at home, plant it in full sun to partial shade in well-drained sandy soil. It’s especially attractive when planted with butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) and smooth blue asters (Symphyotrichum laeve) or blue false indigo (Baptisia australis), which provide contrasting colors. The Maryland golden aster is short-lived, but reseeds nicely.

The other aster I saw, the white wood aster, is one of the first asters to bloom. It’s tough and only up to 1-1/2 feet tall with a slightly sprawling growth habit. The flowers are daisy-like and roughly an inch in diameter. As they age, they morph from white to pale pink, but remain attractive. The stem of this aster is a striking black and is often zigzagged. Leaves are heart shaped and toothed.

The white wood aster grows best in filtered sunlight in neutral to slightly acidic soil. It’s both drought and deer resistant. In the home garden, the white wood aster is lovely when interplanted with ferns, wild ginger (Asarum canadense), and foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia).

Yes, winter is coming. Soon there will be frost. In the meantime, William Bliss Carman, the Canadian poet, was right about asters:

And my lonely spirit thrills

To see the frosty asters like smoke upon the hills.

Cynthia Wood is a master gardener who writes two columns for The Farmville Herald. Her email address is Cynthia.crewe23930@gmail.com.