Home of the Practically Perfect Pink Phlox and other native plants for pollinators

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Wildflower Wednesday: Ex-aster time is the best time to be in the garden

I've said it before and I'll say it again, ex-aster time is the best time to be in the garden. The days are warm and Autumn angle of the sun makes everything glow.

Symphyotrichum, aka ex-asters, and other Central Basin natives grew with happy abandon in the forested woodland where this garden now stands. Seventy years ago our house was built in a neighborhood carved from the woodland. Homeowners came and went while the asters and wildflowers grew quietly on the woodland edges. Almost 40 years ago this month my husband and I bought our 1955 ranch. There was a canopy of oaks, Hickories and Ashes and a old Cersis canadensis that was declining. Along the asphalt driveway was a Ostrya virginica that was being strangled  by a white Wisteria vine. At the edges of the yard were some ephemerals and other native plants that this new gardener only discovered later. What I did notice was a cloud of blue flowers that were dancing in the breeze. The plants were alive with activity; there were tiny bees, glowing metallic copper and green; flies that looked like bees; wasps of all sizes and many different bumbles. I fell in love with those beautiful blue flowers that I learned were asters and, of course, the humming that turned out to be native bumbles and other little bees.

It took me a few seasons of being distracted by my struggle to grow plants that made no sense for the shallow soil or shady conditions. When I stumbled upon Dr Hemmerly's book Wildflowers of the Central South everything became clearer. He introduced me to concepts that were important to know if I were to have any success at gardening in my yard. I learned about Middle Tennessee microclimates and about the unique wildflowers that grew only in the cedar glades. I figured out that my garden was a xeric oak-hickory forest plant community with areas of extremely shallow soil with plenty of limestone boulders hiding under the shallow soil. The nearly neutral clay soil is hard as concrete during our dry summers and wet and sticky during our rainy winters. 

I mulled over what I learned and found myself thinking this: "Gail, your garden isn't a failure, but, trying to make it something that it isn't is the true failure. Take a look at what's already growing here. Appreciate and celebrate what you have."


So I did. I decided to watch my yard throughout the growing season. I say yard because it really wasn't much of a garden back then. Early the next spring I noticed other hidden wildflower gems. Columbines, Trillium, spring beauties, toothwort, False garlic, Golden Ragwort and Phlox divaricata. In late spring I  found dozens of Penstemon calycosus growing in the wayback backyard in both the dry shade and in the the wet weather spring. Sedges, poverty oatgrass, lyre leaf sage and Ruellias popped up in the lawn. Also growing there were Blue-eyed grass, Downy Woodmint, the cutest little Panicums and a tiny daisy with lavender hints that wasn't even in my wildflower guide. That sweet little daisy is Entireleaf Western Daisy a Middle Tennessee native (annual) that I have allowed to spread where ever it is happy. Later that spring the old world Irises that were planted by the former owner bloomed and the Green Dragon dramatically unfurled. Summer brought the Phlox paniculata into bloom and later that fall I welcomed the sea of blue Symphyotrichum shortii, S lateriflorum, S cordifolium and S pilosum along with their busily nectaring pollinators.

Aromatic aster, Short's aster and River Oats

 It was a native plant wake up call* and I suppose you could say that those little blue asters opened my eyes to all the critters that live in and visit this garden.

Photo from when Nashville was less droughty in the fall

 Symphyotrichum is a genus of about 90 species of herbaceous annual and perennial plants that were formerly treated within the genus Aster, but, are now known officially at Clay and Limestone as the ex-asters or asters when I forget their ridiculously hard to pronounce genus. The ones growing in my garden are all native to Middle Tennessee and grow and thrive in the shallow clay soil and semi-shady to almost full sun conditions of my Zone7 garden. 


They're are found all over North America and are an important nectar and pollen source for many insects including long-tongued bees, short-tongued bees, small to medium-sized butterflies, and skippers. The visiting insects primarily seek nectar, although the bees also collect pollen that they use to provision their winter nests. Many kinds of insects feed on the foliage and other parts of asters, including the caterpillars of the butterfly Chlosyne nycteis (Silvery Checkerspot) and the larvae of over 30 moth species. (source)

Aromatic aster

Asters in this post have a lot going for them

  • a delightful extended season of bloom just as the garden is transitioning to browns
  • showy daisy like flowers that come in a variety of blues, violets and white
  • graceful arching stems
  • a floral display that keeps on keeping on
  • a pollinator magnet 
  • reseeds wonderfully, but they may be propagated by seeds, division, root cuttings, or stem cuttings
  • seeds have bristly tufts that help them disperse by the wind
  • practically maintenance free 
  • grows in shade
  • fairly drought tolerant
  • the leaves are often attractive
  • will happily grow in containers, your wild garden or even a formal garden


 The Particulars

Genus name: Symphyotrichum

Common Names: Short's aster, Calico aster, Heart leaved aster, Frost aster, Aromatic aster

Type: Herbaceous perennial

Family: Asteraceae

Native Range: Eastern North America, Central United States and western Canada

Zone: 4 to 8 

Height: 2.00 to 4.00 feet 

Spread: 2.00 to 4.00 feet 

Bloom Time: September to October and into November (middle Tennessee) 

Bloom Description: Showy and attractive to native bees and butterfly. The flowers have disc florets that may be white or yellow. The rays encircle the floret, and their colors vary from white, pink, blue, or purple.

Aspect: Full sun to part shade 

Water: Mesic to dry conditions 

Soil: Loam, clay-loam, sandy loam, or gravelly material 

Maintenance: Low

Wildlife value: They're are found all over North America and are an important nectar and pollen source for many insects including long-tongued bees, short-tongued bees, small to medium-sized butterflies, and skippers. The visiting insects primarily seek nectar, although the bees also collect pollen that they use to provision their winter nests. Many kinds of insects feed on the foliage and other parts of asters, including the caterpillars of the butterfly Chlosyne nycteis (Silvery Checkerspot) and the larvae of over 30 moth species. (source) Asters also provide nectar for migrating monarch butterflies and seeds for birds.

Comments: I love how fantastic these flowers can look when they are allowed to plant themselves with abandon throughout the garden. If you can go with the flow you'll be rewarded with a blue cloud of shimmering flowers that bloom until frost...But, if you need more order, they are magnificent in mixed borders.


 Trust me when I say that ex-aster time is the best time to be in the garden and maybe the best time to be a bee! So glad you stopped by.xoxogail

Welcome to Clay and Limestone and Wildflower Wednesday.  This day is about sharing wildflowers and other native plants no matter where one gardens~the UK, tropical Florida, Europe, Australia, Africa, South America, India or the coldest reaches of Canada. It doesn't matter if we sometimes share the same plants. It doesn't matter if they're in bloom (think winter sharing), how they grow and thrive in your garden is what matters most.

Don't forget our Wildflower Wednesday monthly challenge! 

The first part of this challenge is to do something every month during 2023 and beyond that supports native wildflowers, pollinators, and the critters that visit and rely on our gardens. Activities that increase our knowledge of the natural world are equally as valuable. Helping others learn about nature is included. Golly gee whiz, there are so many things you can do. The second part of the challenge is to post about it somewhere: Your blog, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or even your neighborhood listserve. Wouldn't an article in the local paper be a coup for nature! Why post it? Because positive publicity is needed to educate our friends, neighbors and communities about how important even the smallest changes we make as gardeners can be for pollinators, birds, insects and mammals that live all around us. 

Why now?  My neighborhood is changing. Yours might be, too. Every day an older home along with many (if not all) of the mature oak, hickory, maple, Eastern cedar and hackberry trees that have been there for over 75 years are cut down. In place of the "bee lawns" composed of Claytonia, Salvia lyrata, Ruellia humilis, fleabane, Western Daisy, Violets, self-heal, clovers, and dandelions that grew so well in the shallow soil that sits on top of limestone bedrock are sodded non-native lawns that get daily watering, whether it rains or not. Gone are the lightening bugs. Gone are the ground dwelling/nesting native bees. Gone is the habitat for insects, spiders and other critters. Gone is plant diversity. Gone are trees that provided for hundreds of moths, butterflies and other insects. Gone are the nesting sites for woodpeckers, hummingbirds, Chickadees and other birds. It breaks my heart. We can't stop the multi-million dollar houses from going up, but, maybe we can make a lot of educational noise and help our new neighbors see the value in providing for critters.

A gardener can hope!

Here's an incomplete list of things you might consider doing or changing in your garden, but don't limit yourself to my list, make your own list or check out the internet for ideas.

Shrink your lawn and make your planting beds larger.

Plant your favorite native perennials and shrubs. Leave them standing after they've gone to seed to continue to provide for wildlife. What you plant in your yard makes a difference to wildlife. I garden for wildlife so every tree, shrub and plant is chosen with wildlife in mind.

Plant more natives and then consider planting even more. "A typical suburban landscape contains only 20-30% native plant species. Try reversing that trend in your own landscape by using 70-80% native species." (source)

Commit to never, ever, ever, ever using pesticides in the garden.

Stay away from native plant hybrids and cultivars that are double flowered. They are sterile and have no pollen or nectar for insects and no seeds for the birds. If possible plant “true open-pollinated native wildflowers”

If you want to garden for wildlife and pollinators, don't let lack of space stop you! Plant your favorite wildflowers in large containers. You just might have the prairie or woodland garden you've always wanted...in a pot!
Create a water feature. Provide water year round that is accessible to birds, bees and other critters.

Show some soil! Our native ground nesting bees nest in bare soil, so don't mulch every square inch of your garden. 

Get rid of the plastic weed barriers in your garden, it's not good for anything.

Invite bugs into your garden. Plant annuals that attract beneficial bugs.

Learn to tolerate damaged plants. Imperfection is the new perfect.

Don't be in a rush to clean up the fall garden. Leave plant stalks and seed heads standing all winter. Leave those fallen leaves or as many as you can tolerate! Insects over winter in the fallen and decaying leaves. Leave a layer of leaves as a soft landing material under trees for moths and butterflies to over winter. Many caterpillars drop to the ground from the trees in the fall.

Make a brush pile. Stack fallen brush, cut tree limbs, broken pots for ground beetles. Ground beetles are excellent at eating "bad bugs'. They're also good bird, toad and small critter food. 

Rethink what you consider a pest. Lots of good bugs eat aphids. Spiders are important predators and bird food!

Add nesting boxes for birds. 

Turn off your yard up-lighting, eave lights and porch lights after 11pm. This is important for nocturnal critters including mammals, snakes, insects, bats, birds (especially during migration). (Birdcast suggestions)

Plant shrubs and small trees that provide berries and nuts.

Keep a nature journal: Observe visitors to the water feature, make note of when they visit. Notice which flowers attract the most pollinators and which ones are just pretty faces. 

Join your state native plant society (Tennessee Native Plant Society)

Join WildOnes even if there's no local group. (Middle Tennessee WildOnes)

Support your local native plant sellers. (GroWild in middle Tennessee, Overhill Gardens in east Tennessee,  Resource Guide TN Native Plant Society)

Encourage your local garden clubs to offer native plant talks.

If your garden club has a plant sale encourage them to sell more native plants.

Get trained as a naturalist (Tennessee Naturalist Program, Almost every state has their own Master Naturalist training program)

Take an online course on tree, fungi and wildflower id.

Take a walk in your neighborhood and observe nature. To quote Joanna Brichetto in Sidewalk Nature "Look Around. Nature is here, is us, our driveways, our baseboards, parks, and parking lots."

Buy the best wildflower, butterfly and bird id books for your state.

Read nature books to your children and grandchildren. Buy them nature books.

Give nature books as baby shower gifts (Nature books for infants and toddlers)

Read! There are hundreds of books on gardening for wildlife, the environment, and rewilding our world. There are delightful blogs with wonderful and informative articles.

If you are already gardening with wildlife in mind then add a few signs that help educate your neighbors. (Xerces Society, Pollinator Partnership)

Set up an information station where neighbors can pick up brochures about your garden and other info. 

Get certified (National Wildlife Federation, check to see what your state offers)




Gail Eichelberger is a gardener and therapist in Middle Tennessee. She loves wildflowers and native plants and thoroughly enjoys writing about the ones she grows at Clay and Limestone. She reminds all that the words and images are the property of the author and cannot be used without written permission.


  1. I agree about the angle of the sun, for sure. Our Asters are pretty much done, but I enjoyed them in September through early to mid-October. Beautiful photos, Gail. :)

  2. It must have been quite an effort to figure just how to make your garden work! And it looks like a great success.

  3. It must have taken a great effort to figure it all out, but you’ve obviously been successful!


"Insects are the little things that run the world." Dr. E O Wilson