There are 10 to 15 different species of asters in Manitoba, and from mid-August well into October there are asters of some sort in bloom.
Along roadside ditches and disturbed areas Smooth Aster and Many-Flowered Aster are abundant. In the Eastern Parklands, in places like the Prairie Preserve in Tolstoi, the New England Aster stands tall. In marshes and wetlands Willow Aster and Flat-Topped Aster are found and the rare Western Silvery Aster is known mainly to Birds Hill Park.
Bees and butterflies depend on the pollen and nectar of these late bloomers before their upcoming hibernation, and the Monarch butterfly (which doesn’t hibernate), depends on this nectar supply to fuel up before the migratory flight to Mexico.
Asters are easy to propagate. They produce small, fluffy seed heads that can be collected in the fall and stored in a paper bag for the winter. In March, put some of the seeds in a small plastic bag along with a damp paper towel and refrigerate for four to six weeks. On a moistened and well-compacted soilless mixture, spread some seeds on top and tamp them down (do not bury them as light is important for the germination). Cover the planting container with clear plastic to keep the surface and seeds damp.
Germination will take about two to three weeks and the seedlings should be thinned out and allowed to continue to grow until planting-out time. Some species grow fairly quickly and flower in their first growing season, while others will take a year or two to reach maturity.
Most native wildflowers grow well in the garden but some dotoowell – such as the Smooth Aster. Considered the most common aster species in southern Manitoba, it readily invades roadside ditches and disturbed sites growing to half a metre in height and sporting a couple dozen bright-blue flowers. Introduced into the garden it may grow to a metre in height and width, producing hundreds of flowers, and may end up sprawling over and crowding out the rest of the plants.
A favourite for the garden is the New England Aster with its upright growth form. It doesn’t sprawl and produces an abundance of large, purple-blue flowers starting in mid-August and lasting well into September.
For late-season colour and to help out the bees and butterflies, give some of our native asters a try. – Patricia Futros writes from Lorette, Manitoba