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By Lyn Chimera

One of the joys of fall is the beautiful colors in nature. Between the trees putting on a show and the field asters and goldenrods bursting with color, it’s nature’s last hurrah before winter sets in. There’s an important reason for all these fall flowers to bloom: pollinators and butterflies need extra nourishment to get through the winter. Just like hibernating bears have to stock up for the winter, so do bees and other insects. Butterflies, such as monarchs, that migrate to warmer climates need the extra energy for their long trip. Aster leaves are also a good food source for butterfly larva. Without larva, there would be no butterflies!

This article will concentrate on asters, not only because they are beautiful and a necessary food source, but because they are also easy to grow in the home garden. There are 54 species of wild asters in the northeastern U.S. I have included a variety of native asters in my small village garden and they are always abuzz with activity from pollinators to butterflies and bring bursts of color in the fall when most other perennials are waning. Lots of gardeners complain about the lack of color after mid-August. Asters are part of the solution as they are just getting started. The following are some suggestions that do well in my garden:

New England Aster (Aster novae-angliae) are the tall violet to purple or rose flowers that are so common in fields from late August through fall. Since they are a field or meadow plant, they do best in full to partial sun and prefer moist soil. They can grow anywhere from 3 to 5 feet tall. I cut mine back 1/3 in early June to keep the mature height at 3 to 4 feet. This also causes branching and an increase in bloom. Each flower is rather daisy-shaped, only smaller, at about 1 inch wide. The yellow pollen-laden centers are a pollinator and butterfly magnet.

New York Aster (Aster novi-belgii) is not quite as tall, only 12 to 36 inches, and blooms with the same colors as the New England aster with the addition of white. These also prefer full to part sun and moist soil. On cloudy days or at night, the flowers close but open up again when the sun comes out and continues throughout the fall. The NY aster tends to be more floriferous than the New England variety.

White Wood Aster (Aster divaricatus) is one of the few asters that will grow in the shade, preferring open woods. They are perfect in woodland gardens. They start blooming in early August and don’t quit until frost. This aster is not as tall, growing only 1½ to 2 feet high. The leaves are rather heart-shaped and quite attractive. The white flowers initially have a yellow center but fades to purple/brown which gives a longer interest. The white wood aster tends to grow in loose colonies rather than in clumps like some of the other asters.

Blue Wood Aster (Aster cordifolius) has a wide variety of growing conditions from sun to shade and in difficult or disturbed soil. It has heart-shaped leaves that form an attractive ground cover before the plant blooms in the fall. The flowers are blue with yellow centers and attractive to bees, skippers, and butterflies. The blue wood aster also has a very long bloom and forms a lovely blue blanket of flowers in a shady or sunny area.

All the above-mentioned asters are easily started from seed. Originally, I collected seed in the fall and spread it where I wanted the asters to grow in the spring. Once you get a few started, they will spread naturally and will form nice mature patches in a few years. Once the plants are established, the seeds will naturally travel in the wind so you may find asters popping up where you don’t want them. Seedlings can easily be pulled in the spring. To avoid this, simply cut off the spent flowers before they drop seed. However, I always leave the seed heads up as some smaller winter birds use them as a food source.

Many of the native asters have been hybridized as cultivars for color, size, or other growing characteristics. While these may be beautiful plants, they may not be as good a food source for our native pollinators and butterflies. It is always best to buy the native species. Admittedly, the true natives are more difficult to find as most nurseries carry cultivars, but if enough people request the true natives, the nurseries will respond. Specific varieties can also be purchased on line.

To add splashes of color to your fall garden and provide much needed food for pollinators and butterflies, try some asters!

To contact me at Lessons from Nature, call 652-2432 or e-mail at lyn@lessonsfromnature.biz. I can e-mail or mail the gift certificates.