What is a New England Aster?

Terrie Brockmann
Terrie Brockmann
Man mowing the grass
Man mowing the grass

The native New England aster is often referred to as the Michaelmas daisy, because it has a daisy-like composite flowerhead. Botanists call it Aster novae-angliae and assign it to the Asteraceae, or aster, family. The New England aster is native to parts of North America. In the wild, it grows in a variety of regions, including mountainsides, woodlands, and roadsides.

Traditionally, the New England aster is a pale mauve to a deep purple color. Throughout the years, botanists and aster enthusiasts have increased the color palate. Modern gardeners enjoy colors like violet-purple, rosy pink, and salmon-pink. 'Wedding Lace' sports pure white ray florets, while 'Barr's Pink' has bright pink ray florets ringed around yellow-tipped red disk florets.

Florets are the small flowers that make up the large composite flowerhead. The aster flowerhead may look like one flower, but it is a group of tiny flowers. A composite flowerhead has very small, tubular flowers in the center that mature into seeds. The colorful, petal-like flowers that ring the center are ray florets. These are the plant's attention-grabbing signal flags to insects. Individual flowerheads may measure up to 2 inches (5 cm) across.

The New England aster typically has flowers that grow in corymb-like sprays that may measure up to 10 inches (about 25 cm) across. This means that one flower stem has several flowerheads that grow along the top of the stem. Usually, the stalk of flowerheads is not spiked, but is flat-topped. Sometimes these flower stalks are so top heavy with large blooms that they need staking.

Typically, the plants are vigorous growers that can fill a garden bed. They usually grow from 2 to 5 feet (about 0.5 to 1.5 m) tall with a spread of 24 inches (about 60 cm). Some are dwarfs like 'Purple Dome,' which grows only 18 inches (about 45 cm) tall and 30 inches (about 75 cm) wide. Depending on their size, gardeners grow them in borders, rock gardens, and flowerbeds. Many of the taller cultivars may be pruned to curtail their height and to encourage bushiness and more buds.

Generally, growers sow seeds in cold frames in the spring in areas where frost is a problem. Other ways to propagate the plants include dividing the clumps. Asters benefit from being divided on a regular schedule, usually every two years. The plants respond best if separated in the spring, but growers may separate them in the autumn. Most nurseries sell young plants and may offer newer cultivars.

The leaves of the New England aster are typical of aster leaves. They are hairy, green, and lance shaped. Often they grow to 5 inches (13 cm) long. The leaves sprout directly from the plant's thick stems without a leaf stem.

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