Falling for Asters

Those bound and determined to have an English garden on the Gulf Coast this fall need to know two very important facts.

First of all, you must have asters. Gertrude Jekyll, the influential horti-culturalist who basically decreed how an English garden is supposed to look,  said that asters should have “a garden to themselves” this time of year, “where they could flower in spring-like profusion, when all else is on the verge of death and decay.”

Our October gardens are not quite so morbid as the English ones we still have months of bloom left. But the sudden burst of aster color this month is just as much like spring and just as deserving of its own garden.

And that brings us to the second fact: The asters that Gertrude Jekyll and other English gardeners love so much were originally native to the forests and fields of Alabama and the Gulf Coast.

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In England, they often call the plants starworts or Michaelmas (Mickle-mus) daisies, because these daisy-like flowers bloom near the old church holiday of Michaelmas on September 29. But feel free to call the buds blooming so beautifully right now — with long radiating petals of blue, purple, lavender, pink, mauve or white — just plain asters. 

Members of the aster family  — daisies, sunflowers, the asters themselves — display the flower form every child immediately comprehends and draws. It’s like a sunburst that is evolving into a star, and it’s no coincidence that the word aster sounds a lot like astrology. 

But that crayon-like simplicity hides one of the most complicated and highly evolved flower assemblies in the world of plants. In the aster family, each flower is actually made up of many flowers. 

Draw a sunflower in your head, a big shining yellow disk in the center, surrounded by a ruff of petals. 

The yellow petals on the outside of the flowers are just for show, flags to wave down some passing insect pollinator. The real business is in that golden central disk, which will eventually be packed with hundreds of spirally arranged seeds. Each of those seeds started out as a separate flower. Individually, the flowers are minute and unimpressive. Collectively, they blow us away, from childhood to our graves.

My bet is that asters are shaped like they are because they were looking for the best way to take advantage of the newly evolving world of insects. There was no such thing as a butterfly or a bumblebee when plants first learned to flower a couple hundred million years ago. The earlier, more primitive flowering plants, such as the magnolias and the water lilies, were designed to be pollinated by beetles and flies.

Asters evolved relatively late, along with the explosive evolution of butterflies, bees and other insect pollinators. And their many small flowers, arranged in a cluster, are designed to maximize the rewards both to the insects that pollinate them and to the plant itself. 

This is why asters and their kin are the flowers you must have if you want to attract a wide variety of insect pollinators such as butterflies or native bumblebees. And it’s why you can often find multiple insects noodling a single aster flower. There are more than enough flowers to go around within each bloom.

And as I said, asters are the flowers you must have if you ever hope to ape your British gardening forebears, who were intent on aping the flowering beauty of the woods where you live.

Many of us who have grown up on a diet rich in beautiful native asters are surprised by what tickled the fancy of English gardeners. Jekyll was positively enthused about our common white wood aster, in spite of its dingy white and sometimes disheveled flowers. Her famous fall borders were overrun with the pallid purple of New York aster. 

That just goes to show that even the most humble North American asters are garden standouts. And I can only wonder what the English garden might have looked like if Madame Gertrude had available to her all the 35 to 40 species of asters native along the Gulf Coast.

I had a chance to find out once, when I took the English garden doyenne of the 20th century, the late Rosemary Verey, to view the asters in the longleaf pines near Spanish Fort. In those days, two decades ago now, the wild fall asters beneath those remnant pines were stunning. You could count a dozen species of asters blooming at once on an October day. 

Verey fell in love with them and wanted to take back seeds of spectacular asters, like the silvery blue aster, or the pale lavender blue willow leaf aster, or the deeper-colored late purple aster, or the bone-like white-topped aster, or the shrub-like stiff-leafed aster or the green chains of scaleleaf aster. And so she did. 

The asters that once graced the longleaf pines near Spanish Fort are gone, trampled, I suspect, by our own inability to recognize what makes life here uniquely beautiful. But I like to imagine those Baldwin County asters may have a second life, at least, in English gardens, where the beauty of Gulf Coast asters has long been appreciated.

Photo by Gabriela Ruellan


Gulf Coast Almanac

Bloom of the Month: Senna
Once upon a time, big golden globes of showy senna, Cassia splendida, were a sign of the fall season here on the Gulf Coast. How could we forget what a splendid glow they cast across the lawn? Plant these in spring, watch them grow into a handsome large shrub and anticipate the blooms when the days get short in October.

Signs of the Season
The tupelo trees are already turning brilliant red, announcing that the Gulf’s long season of leaf color has begun. But falling leaves are just the beginning of this cool season’s bounty of flowers and fruits.

Only those who don’t understand Gulf gardening wait until spring for planting. This is it, the season of lettuce, broccoli, kohlrabi, radishes, greens of all sorts. Transplant big specimens now, and you’ll be picking steadily for months on end: sweet peas, hollyhocks, poppies. Spread these seeds across the ground now for great spring bloom. Shrubs and trees? You bet. 

Lawns Start Now 
There’s no better time to start your new lawn. Grass planted this month and the next have the highest success rate and are easy to install. Diseases and pests are fading away, temperatures are nice, and once you get it watered good, the winter rains and mild temperatures will take care of the green lawn until spring.

Bill Finch has been the voice of authority on Gulf Coast gardening and the environment for more than two decades. Talk to him every Sunday morning, from 9 a.m. until 11 a.m. on the Gulf Coast Sunday Morning show on Talk Radio 106.5 FM. Don’t miss him and WKRG weatherman John Nodar cutting up in the garden every Friday on News 5 at noon.

text by Bill Finch • photos by beth young

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