Asters and goldenrods might be Maine’s most recognizable late-season wildflowers. They often grow together in wild spaces and because purples and yellows are complementary, they are especially pleasing to the eye.
Aside from their visual appeal, there are more important reasons to appreciate goldenrods and asters and allow them to become the foundation of your late-season wildlife and pollinator garden. Goldenrods and asters are closely related botanically as both are members of the huge Asteraceae (aster) family. But the real power of these two genres of plants is their rich nectar that supports pollinating insects in late summer through fall. If you observe the blooms of the various species of goldenrods and asters throughout September, you will find an amazing assortment of insects nectaring on them, including many familiar butterflies and especially the beloved Monarch butterfly. Leaving the stalks and dried seed heads in the gardens through winter will provide seed and shelter for birds and other critters through the lean months.
It is a challenge to choose just one species of these remarkable plants to discuss in this column, but having just witnessed the most incredible flight of Monarchs during the last week of September, we choose New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae).
The magnificent blooms of New England Aster highlight Maine’s late-season landscape with rich colors ranging from deep violet to lavender and pink with yellow centers. Large and showy, this aster can grow up to six feet high. Like most asters it blooms late in the season and provides a critical fall nectar source for pollinators, especially Monarchs as they stock up for their fall migration to Mexico. New England aster is also a larval host for several butterflies and moths including the Pearl Crescent.
This deer-resistant native prefers moist, rich soil but is easily grown in a broad range of conditions, thriving in full sun or light shade in all but the driest soils. It does self-seed in favorable conditions. When this tall aster goes into bloom, the lower leaves begin to dry up and this is normal. If height becomes an issue, pinching back the stems a few times before mid-July can help eliminate any need for staking.
Plant straight species New England aster with companion native goldenrods, Joe-pye weeds, milkweeds, and native grasses such as little blue stem and native mountain mints for a beautiful and supportive late-season pollinator garden. Perhaps the September Monarch flight will visit your corner too!—Jan Getgood
PHOTO: Jan Getgood