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Another wild aster for your garden

By Ken Moore

We’ve finally had some killing frosts and winter is beginning to settle in. This is the season we are accustomed to being the hosts of garden mums, Chrysanthemum x morifolium, with their neon-like orange, yellow and red colors, as well as the quieter colors of pink and white of Sasanqua Camellia, Camellia Sasanqua, cultivars. Also noticeable, more often smelled than seen, is the very fragrant, very tiny, flowered evergreen Sweet Olive, Osmanthus x Fortunei.

So it is often a surprise and a joyful relief to happen upon something different in flower this late in the season. For years, I have enjoyed the several specimens of Climbing Aster, Aster carolinianus,
(Ampelaster carolinianus) that have remained in full flower after killing frosts through the Thanksgiving holidays. This is one of our native asters; it occurs infrequently in our Southeastern coastal plain and more commonly further south down to Florida. It is somewhat surprising that it is such a hardy and sturdy grower in our Piedmont, a bit beyond its natural occurrence. It does not seem to pose a threat of spreading rampantly in gardens and in the wild because its characteristic late flowering doesn’t find many pollinating insects buzzing around to assist it in setting viable seed.

I have difficulty adequately describing the flower color. The buds of each flower head begin as a rosy pink before opening to shades of lavender and blue. Over the years, I have become aware that I tend to be more appreciative of plants in bud than in full flower. I’m curious why the anticipation of a flower can be more rewarding than the open flower itself – but I encourage you to focus as much on flower buds as the flower.

It will definitely extend your number of days of watching and appreciating an individual plant.

A gardening friend recently called my attention to a particularly dramatic specimen of Climbing Aster along the pathway of North Boundary Street over in Chapel Hill. It’s worth a visit. This plant is a mound at least six feet wide and almost as high. Climbing Aster does in fact climb, almost like a vine. If it doesn’t have a trellis on which to climb, it will simply make a big mound by climbing on itself. At the Botanical Garden, the giant specimen behind the aquatic tanks is scrambling up the high lattice fence behind it, and elsewhere another specimen is happy to climb even higher by hanging its angled woody stems on the limbs of an old cedar snag.

Last week at the Garden, I also noticed the native Coral Honeysuckle, Lonicera sempervirens, still sporting clusters of little red tubular flowers, a happy find, I’m sure, for any chilly hummingbird who’s late moving on southward. The Coral Honeysuckle routinely flowers off and on during mild weeks throughout the winter. This native red honeysuckle is frequently seen in local gardens, but the Climbing Aster is seldom seen. It’s time to plant one in your garden and place it out front so others can enjoy it.

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