By Pat Pawlowski. First published in Let’s Talk Plants! November 2011, No. 206.
When you wish upon a star – think of an aster. Indeed, the English word “aster” is derived from the Latin astrum, meaning star.
Right now there is a little star that is blooming in my sun-soaked, poor-soiled, un-pruned, relaxed front yard. It is an Aster chilensis, informally known as a coast aster. Though my land is not on the coast, the little aster doesn’t seem to care because it’s doing great. It’s a perennial, about a foot tall and several feet wide. Unlike a lot of my other natives, it blooms its head off in late summer and early fall, when many other natives have shut down for the season.
Now if you are only interested in engorged SUV-sized, splashy, boisterously large daisies, that’s fine; but that’s not what we have here. What we have here are little one-inch lavender daisy-like flowers that Jiminy Cricket would be proud of. Though they are small, the petite posies catch the eye and invite a closer glimpse.
Drawing nearer, you might spot beneficial insects such as ladybugs, hoverflies, and bees. And, butterflies! In my yard right now the coast aster plant is supporting loads of marine blues (the butterflies, not the Semper Fi folks).Websites like www.laspilitas.com have great photos of coast asters with monarchs and painted ladies perched on top.
Which brings us to the question: Just what in the daisy attracts butterflies and others? It helps to know that each daisy is kind of a corporation (oh no) composed of separate ray flowers (the petals) and disk flowers (the center). Submerged in the flower head are the nectaries that hold (take a guess) nectar.
Are you still awake?
I’m not going to dwell on the fact that, once again, our friends the taxonomists are putting their nomenclatory propositions where they don’t belong. The new botanical name of Aster chilensis is Symphyotrichum chilense. Oh goody. How easy it will be to spell, and pronounce – maybe I’ll just keep calling it coast aster.
Now, on to three things that make more sense.
(1) Variability. In the case of coast aster, its height can vary between half a foot to three feet. Some plants will grow upright while others may sprawl somewhat. The cultivar ‘Point St. George’ is a 6-inch low growing mat of green that could be used in a meadow garden to replace a lawn. It is unbelievably durable – it is said you can walk on it – but by the same token it can spread very aggressively. The clone ‘Purple Haze’ is a particularly showy variety of aster with deep purple flowers.
(2) Easibility. By this, I mean you can relax. You don’t have to fertilize it. You don’t have to water it much (too much water can make it spread, so if you want it to stay small, keep it on the dry side).You don’t need to remove the seed heads; leaving them on will make the birds happy.
(3) Adaptability. Makes no difference where you are – coast aster can grow in both sandy and clay soils. It accepts part shade. The cut flowers look good in a vase, too.
In short (which it is), want to provide a welcome mat for Jiminy Cricket and friends, plus add an easy-care, naturally attractive plant to your garden? Let your conscience be your guide, and plant a coast aster.
Member Pat Pawlowski is a writer/lecturer/garden consultant who likes to chase butterflies.