Autumn Asters

The harbinger of fall, for many folks, is when asters finally bloom. Their flowers look like miniature daisies and come in shades of purple, blue, white, and occasionally pink. These cool tones allow autumnal hues of yellow, orange, and red to truly pop throughout the landscape. Aster blossoms twinkle across roadsides, meadows, woodland edges, and even home gardens. Interestingly, astéri is the Greek word for star.

White wood aster (Eurybia divaricata)
White wood aster among birch trunks near the Bernice E. Lavin Plant Evaluation Garden sets the perfect fall scene.

Hosts of pollinators favor asters. The late-season blooms provide vital sustenance for adult monarch butterflies during their annual migration to Mexico. Each flower contains plentiful sources of pollen and nectar, because the central disc is comprised of up to 300 tiny florets. After pollination, a disc will turn darker and reddish, informing other insects to keep moving. In the end, birds come to consume the seeds.

Asters belong to a huge family called Asteraceae, which also includes daisies, black-eyed Susans, and sunflowers. They are mainly native to North America and Eurasia. More than 600 species once made up the genus known as Aster. However, in the 1990s, taxonomists decided to divide New World species into ten other genera. The most common ones are Eurybia and Symphyotrichum. Few nurseries adopt these names and continue to list their plants under the genus Aster

Asters are easy to please with well-drained soil and adequate sunlight. Some even prefer shade. An assortment of heights (1 – 6 feet tall) allows them to shine in the front, middle, or back of the border. Powdery mildew is problematic for some, but you can always hide the unsightly lower stems among grasses or ferns. While pretty in nature, some asters just look scruffy in the garden. Selecting the right type is the key to a tidy look. The following asters perform best:

Jindai Tatarian aster (Aster tataricus 'Jindai')
Jindai Tatarian aster (Aster tataricus ‘Jindai’) can be found in the Lakeside Garden and on Evening Island at the Trellis Bridge.
White wood aster (Eurybia divaricata)
White wood aster (Eurybia divaricata) can be found in the Heritage Garden beds, throughout the Landscape and Bulb Gardens, in large groupings on Evening Island, and all around the Plant Science Center.

Jindai Tatarian aster (Aster tataricus ‘Jindai’) originates in Asia and has uniquely large and toothed foliage. From mid- to late fall, lavender-blue daisies appear in showy flat-topped clusters upon 3 – 4 foot tall stems. Best planted in the back of a bed with plenty of sun and space, its roots slowly spread into a weed smothering ground cover. Pair it with some equally tall and tough switchgrass (Panicum virgatum).

White wood aster (Eurybia divaricata) blooms for a long time, starting in late summer and lasting throughout fall. Clouds of starry white flowers are borne on 2-foot stems with heart-shaped leaves. It grows in woodlands of eastern North America where it spreads slowly by rhizomes and quickly from seed. Cut spent flower stems off if you do not want extra plants. Combines wonderfully with ferns, sedges, and shade-loving goldenrods like Solidago caesia or Solidago flexicaulis.

Avondale blue wood aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium 'Avondale')
Avondale blue wood aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium ‘Avondale’) can be found on Evening Island, just west of the carillon along the path.
October Skies aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium 'October Skies')
Find aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium ‘October Skies’) in the Landscape Garden, along the Lakeside Garden path, at McGinley Pavilion, on Evening Island near the Arch Bridge, and near the Plant Science Center.

Avondale blue wood aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium ‘Avondale’) is an extra-floriferous selection of an eastern North American species found at forest edges. A plethora of attractive blue flowers begin in early fall on 2 – 3 foot stems. Grows well in either sun or shade, where it adds additional color to perennials like Japanese anemone (Anemone hupehensis), monkshood (Aconitum), and the yellow fall foliage of blue star (Amsonia hubrichtii).

October Skies aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium ‘October Skies’) is a great alternative to New England aster (S. novae-angliae), because it is less prone to powdery mildew. With full sun, it forms a compact 2- x 2-foot mound of nicely scented foliage. In autumn, hundreds of blue-purple flowers cover the plant. The species naturally occurs across the central and eastern United States. Try it with fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides).

Frost aster (Symphyotrichum pilosum)
Frost aster (Symphyotrichum pilosum) overflows the center plantings of the Heritage Garden.

Frost aster, or hairy aster (Symphyotrichum pilosum) is a 3- x 3-foot, clump-forming plant with many branched and arching stems. In fall, it becomes loaded with little white daisies and creates a baby’s breath appearance among flowers like Japanese anemone (Anemone hupehensis). Frost aster is common in a variety of dry, sunny habitats in eastern North America. It spreads happily by seed, so if you have too many, cut off the spent flower stems before they develop any further.

©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Workin’ the Berm: Aster Management

Selecting perennials to look good year-round and weather the seasons outside our wall (and next to the freeway) has been a challenge! With its own group of microclimates and an often-harsh growing climate—including high winds and both flooding and drought conditions—cultivating the garden along the Garden Wall and Berm has been a learning experience.

PHOTO: Panoramic shot of the garden visible through and behind our sign on the Edens expressway.
The Garden section in question, located by the big Edens Expressway (northbound lanes) sign.

Originally, the design for the perennial border—which you can see trailing up and down the hill behind the big Chicago Botanic Garden sign—included Tatarian aster (Aster tataricus ‘Jindai’), which stands tall in the fall and produces clouds of small lavender-blue flowers well into late October and even November. The problem with this particular plant choice was its aggressiveness. It’s not exactly invasive, but it’s a bully: its roots spread out and then shoot up a new plant every few inches, which produce a forest of these plants. Unfortunately, they soon encompassed pretty much everything in their path. Even the hearty feather reed grass (Calamagrostis acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’) began to succumb to this persistent tide of plants, strangling down into mere wisps of their former glory.

PHOTO: Aster tataricus 'Jindai'
A dense grouping of our problematic asters.

Manual removal of the asters was only part of the solution; we needed to find a replacement for these bad boys. In the process, we revisited the vision for this border, and decided to mix drifts of purple coneflower (Echinacea), blazing star (Liatris), and several varieties of ornamental grasses with a replacement for the original Tatarian asters.

The chosen replacement was a smooth aster cultivar, Aster laevis ‘Bluebird’, which is new to the Garden’s plant collection. It bears flowers nearly identical in color to ‘Jindai’ and can grow to the same height as well.

PHOTO: Bluebird smooth aster (Aster laevis 'Bluebird')
Bluebird smooth aster (Aster laevis ‘Bluebird’) is getting along nicely with its neighbor plantings.

Furthermore, this cultivar is more well-behaved and doesn’t spread as aggressively. Bluebird smooth aster simply grows bushier in successive seasons—a win/win situation, to be sure. The replanting process took staging and preparation that began with the removal of any grasses that would need to be relocated or divided, and these were heeled into a well-mulched bed located immediately at the site, and watered generously. Additional EchinaceaLiatris, and grasses were delivered and staged for installation. Once all of the ‘Jindai’ had been removed, it was time to plant the new group. 

The new Bluebird asters came in 2-inch pots and were notably small compared to the 4-foot-tall plants they were replacing; to top it off, these were beginning to bloom in June, so the top half of these small plants needed to be trimmed off, making them even smaller. But we were confident that these plants would be well-sited in full sun, so their potential growth was a slam-dunk.

Once the grasses were in place—Panicum virgatum ‘Rotstrahlbush’, Calamagrostis acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’, and Sorghastrum nutans ‘Sioux Blue’—the rest of the perennials were planted, with the idea of pulling the taller Liatris more toward the middle or back of the border and allowing the Echinacea to fill toward the front. The new asters would eventually stand toward the middle and back of the bed, as tall as most of the grasses. It was important to maintain the colors placed well among the grasses, as they would be the last to bloom. Planting and mulching happened simultaneously to avoid damage to the new asters.

PHOTO: Panoramic shot of the new plantings in full bloom.
This thriving section of the replanted Garden Wall and Berm has a prairie theme: blazing star (Liatris), coneflower (Echinacea), Bluebird asters, and a variety of grasses.

That was a year ago, and the border looked fine in the fall, but the question remained—how will it look this year? We’re happy to report that the Bluebird asters are rocking it: they were already as tall in July as their neighboring grasses, and they’re filling out and ready for a spectacular fall display. Of the 3,200 plants that were either moved, divided, or planted anew, the survival rate is exceptionally high: fewer than 1 percent of the plants were lost! It’s mid-August at this writing, and the colors are popping. So, the next time you drive by, carefully check it out, and enjoy this part of a lengthy border of native beauty.

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and