Roots and Shoots: Falling for Asters (and Goldenrod)

I think it was the drought. After that period in July and August when any plant that wasn’t getting watered suffered or went dormant, a bit of rainfall in September came just in time for the fall-blooming asters and goldenrod. 

New England asters

New England asters (Photos by P. Doan)

While I’ve always used both in my landscape, I’ve regarded them as a necessity for foraging pollinators, and undervalued them for their natural good looks. 

This fall, that pop of purple, white and blue from the asters and bright yellow from the goldenrods was a blessing in my brown landscape. That the plants persevered through the severe conditions demonstrates their hardiness. 

There is something about inter-planting them that is also aesthetically pleasing. Purple and yellow are opposites on the color wheel, making them complementary, and both colors attract bees and butterflies. 

White wood asters

White wood asters

For anyone who wants to support monarchs on their long fall migration, having asters is the way to be rewarded. At a time of year when most flowers are finished, asters and goldenrod serve as a lifeline for pollinators. While chrysanthemums are ubiquitous at garden centers, they don’t provide the nectar that bees and butterflies need. 

There are many native species and cultivars of asters and goldenrod, so you can find the right plant for almost any growing conditions. There are more than 100 aster species native to North America and a range of cultivars bred for larger bloom size, color and other characteristics. They are truly low-maintenance plants in the landscape, left alone by browsing deer, too. 

Sun-loving asters 

Aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium)
The size and shape of this plant make it an easy choice for small gardens and for gardeners who want wildflowers but not a wild aesthetic. They tend to have a mounding, bushy shape and are shorter than many straight-species asters. They bloom for about a month in late September and October. 

New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae
These are what many gardeners think of as an aster. They can be quite tall — 3 to 6 feet — and make good back-of-the-border plants. They are known to be excellent at self-sowing and the flower heads can be cut off when the blooms are finished to prevent spreading. This plant provides nectar to at least six types of bees, is a host plant for the pearl crescent butterfly and serves at least 10 other types of insects. 

Shade-loving asters 

White wood aster (Eurybia divaricate)
I discovered these plants growing naturally in my woods. They do well in partial or full shade and can grow when there’s a mass grouping. They make a great ground cover and top out at about 18 inches. Single plants draw in the eye for a closer look at their many petaled flowers.

Blue wood aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)
An online listing for this plant includes a note that it is used by 109 caterpillar species. That makes it a powerhouse for birds, too. Consider planting it for the delicate blooms and pretty heart-shaped leaves. 

Other recommendations: heath aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides) and calico aster (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum).

Goldenrods for sunny areas 

Wrinkle-leaf goldenrod

Wrinkle-leaf goldenrod

Early goldenrod (Solidago juncea)
I don’t recall buying or planting this in my yard but I have one and it gets more action from a diverse group of insects than any other plant. It blooms in July, the peak of summer, for about a month. It’s planted near a walkway, which is not ideal for people nervous about buzzing plants, but the bees are too busy to notice humans. 

Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis)
This is the plant that is frequently mistaken for ragweed. It is also an aggressively self-seeding plant and can dominate a disturbed site within a few years. Control it by cutting it back after blooming. 

Other recommendations: Blue-stemmed goldenrod (Solidago caesia) and showy goldenrod (Solidago speciose). Zig-zag goldenrod (Solidago flexicaulis) works well in shadier areas.

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