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Asters have a lot going for them

| Friday, Aug. 16, 2013, 6:30 p.m.
Jessica Walliser
Smooth blue aster

Asters are among my favorite fall-blooming plants. They are hardy, fairly pest-resistant, and long-flowering favorites that, in my mind, are far lovelier than the ubiquitous, hardy mum.

Hardy from USDA zones 3 through 8, there are thousands of types of asters that would be at home in nearly every backyard across the United States. Here in the East, we have selections that range from 1 to 4 feet in height, and vary in color from pink and purple, to red, white, lavender and blue.

Many North American native asters that used to be in the genus Aster are now in the genus Symphoyotrichum. From here on out (or at least until they change it again), the genus Aster only refers to Old World species of this plant.

Regardless of the nomenclature change (and the spelling and pronunciation problems I am facing because of it), native asters are one exceptional group of plants. Not only are they a good-looking, late-blooming and easy-natured group, they lay out the welcome mat for beneficial insects and pollinators.

There are about 90 species of asters native to North America. Not only that, but there are hundreds of cultivars, varieties, and subspecies of these asters. It's dizzying.

The blooms provide color and interest very late in the season when few other plants are still going strong. The latest flowering aster I grow is ‘S. laeve,' the smooth-blue aster. It easily reaches 4 feet in height and is often in flower on Halloween in my garden. I love the periwinkle blue petals and sunny-yellow centers.

Other favorite aster varieties include the many cultivars of New England asters (S. novae-angliae). I'm partial to ‘Purple Dome,' ‘Honeysong Pink,' ‘Red Cloud' and ‘Foxy Emily.' You also should be on the lookout for New York asters (S. novae-belgii) cultivars, including the beautiful ‘Fellowship' and ‘Helen Ballard.'

Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Grow Organic” and “Good Bug, Bad Bug.” Her website is www.jessicawalliser.com.

Send your gardening or landscaping questions to tribliving@tribweb.com or The Good Earth, 503 Martindale St., 3rd Floor, D.L. Clark Building, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.

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