Perennial Notes Excerpts
This article first appeared in Perennial Notes Fall 1996 issue. At that
time, GPPA had participated in planting a garden for the Olympics. The
garden was in front of City Hall East and has since been dismantled, with
the plants moved to another site. Author Paula Refi', a garden designer,
confirmed that although this plant "is difficult to place" she
is still, seven years later, impressed with the addition it makes to the
right garden space.
One perennial among the nearly fifty species in GPPA's garden at Atlanta City Hall East consistently mystifies visitors this season. Long before it produced a single blossom, the plant's distinctive habit and coloration commanded attention. When hundreds of tiny white daisies appeared in September, it proclaimed itself an aster, but which species? Any botany student who has attempted to key the confusing asters (there are nearly one hundred native species listed in Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas) or any gardener who simply recognizes a praiseworthy plant will appreciate the unique character of Aster lateriflorus 'Prince'.
Aster belong to the daisy family, the Asteraceae, and number nearly 600 species. The genus name is derived from the Latin 'aster', which means 'star', and is a reference to the flower form. 'Lateriflorus' describes the occurrence of the flowers along one side of the stem. The wild species, commonly called the calico aster, possesses many stiff, arching, and often straggly stems that can reach four feet in height. It's white, or occasionally lavender, composite flowers are one-fourth to one-half inch wide. Calico aster is common in fields and thickets from Canada to Florida, and Thoreau described them as being in bloom when "ditches are crowded with millions of little stars".
Aster lateriflorus 'Prince' (I'll do my best to resist calling it 'the aster formerly known as Prince') has a well-documented genealogy. A West German grower identified a plant of more spreading character in a wild population, one with consistently white ray flowers and raspberry discs. It was given the cultivar name 'Horizontalis'. Later, English plantsman Alan Leslie introduced an improved 'Horizontalis' that exhibited exceptionally dark, smoky purple foliage. He dubbed his selection 'Prince'.
We value asters for their dependable autumn bloom and some are fine for cutting, but most of them need staking and their disease-susceptible foliage can be a liability. Aster lateriflorus 'Prince', however, is decidedly spreading and that completely eliminates the staking requirement. It's miniscule lanceolate leaves, arrayed by the thousands on curving stems, are purple with hints of deep green and burgundy. The plant's massing form and extremely fine texture make it a natural for planting in drifts.
The visually recessive foliage presents some unique design possibilities. It could be used in combination with other perennials in the same way that a painter might employ negative space. Though not part of the primary image, it contributes to the composition by virtue of its color, placement, and configuration. Paired with black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia spp.) for example, Aster 'Prince' seems to magnify the yellow daisy, in addition to echoing the daisy's dark cone. 'Prince' performs a similar function next to the yellow blackberry lily (Belamcanda flabellata 'Hello Yello'). Combining Aster 'Prince' with flowers of deep pink or fuchsia highlights the burgundy in the leaf of the aster. Three summer-blooming perennials that do this effectively are purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), pink bee balm (Monarda didyma 'Marshall's Delight') and the pink species of hollyhock (Alcea zebrina). With the production of countless tiny white daisies in autumn, Aster 'Prince' becomes a foamy mass, and it is gorgeous with the giant lamb's ear (Stachys 'Helene von Stein') or with Sedum 'Autumn Joy'.
Like its wild ancestor, Aster 'Prince' prefers full sun and ordinary garden soil. Conventional wisdom says we ought not to feed these roadside natives or their derivatives, but Aster 'Prince' thrived in the City Hall East bed that was enriched with 'Mr Natural CLM'. I cut the plants back by half in mid-summer, which is my usual practice with taller aster species. The plants ultimately grew to only eighteen inches tall, while spreading about two feet. Propagation is easiest by division and, if Aster 'Prince' behaves like other asters, terminal cuttings should root easily.
Despite its royal designation, Aster laterifolius 'Prince' is a benevolent monarch. Undemanding in its requirements, it never seeks favored status. Yet, it is a constant presence throughout the growing season. The prospect of related cultivars could result in an aster dynasty. Long live Aster 'Prince'.