By: Tonya Barnett, (Author of FRESHCUTKY)
Each year, more and more people make the choice to plant native wildflowers as a means to attract and maintain healthy numbers of pollinators within their gardens. With the recent decline in numbers of bees and other beneficial insects, planting nectar-rich flowers is one way to ensure a brighter future for these species. One such pollinator plant, calico aster, is an ideal candidate for attracting bees to your flower garden.
Calico aster (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum) is a perennial wildflower which is native to the eastern United States. Most often occuring in USDA zones 4 through 8, this member of the aster family rewards growers with a profusion of blooms in late summer and into early fall.
Although individual calico aster flowers are no larger than half an inch (1.3 cm.), large white clusters of the flowers bloom up and down the length of each stem, making this plant a beautiful addition to ornamental flower borders. Often reaching heights of 4 feet (1.2 m.) tall, well-established plants require little to no care or maintenance.
Also known as woodland aster, these plants prefer a well-draining location which offers partial shade during the hottest parts of the day. Natural growing calico aster plants are often found near roadsides, in low-lying areas, and near the edges of forests.
When choosing a final planting location, consideration should be taken in regards to soil moisture. Ideally, these perennials should be planted where soils remain relatively moist. However, be sure to avoid excessively soggy soil, as this could lead to root rot.
While these plants can be purchased and transplanted into their final locations, finding locally available plants may be difficult. Luckily, calico aster plants are easily started from seed. There are several options when choosing to start this plant from seed. It can be started indoors in seed trays as well as directly sown in the garden.
Sow the seeds into flats and place in a warm location. When seeds have germinated, harden them off, and transplant into their final location after all chance of frost has passed. Since the seed does not require any special treatment to germinate, growers also have the option of direct sowing into the landscape after all chance of frost passed.
Regardless of which germination method chosen, ensure that the perennials are situated in a nutrient-rich area, as plants can be heavy feeders. Some perennial flowers, when started from seed, require time to become established. Newly transplanted seedlings may not flower the first year after planting.
Once established, and provided its current growing conditions are suitable, little calico aster care is needed.
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A fall favorite of mine is our native calico aster. It is found in all eastern U.S. states and Canadian provinces.
Around our local area, I’m seeing more of these plants than usual. The relatively rainy growing season may have something to do with it since they prefer semi-damp environments. More frequent rain means that it will be more likely they will be able to establish themselves in spots where they wouldn't be found in drier years.
In late summer and early fall, these asters produce a display of 5/8-inch diameter, white flowers with pale yellow centers. You often find them along hiking trails, roadsides and the edge of fields. In my yard they’re popping up around my wood chip pile, an old compost heap and other places that don’t get touched by the mower that often. They range in height from about a foot to over 5 feet tall, depending on their location and how long they have been growing there. They are perennials.
Even though they are not known for their scent, I sometimes can detect a faint sweet smell from mine if I put my nose right up against the flowers.
Calico asters are a good source of late season nectar for pollinators. I’ve noticed many honeybees and other small pollinating insects on mine. As the season progresses, the flower centers change colors as they age adding hues of pink, blue or maroon here and there, giving it a “calico” appearance.
The flowers are just starting to change from yellow. (Photo: Bob Dluzen)
Calico asters can be confused with other similar-looking species. However, if you look closely, you’ll notice the plant has another distinguishing characteristic: Its flowers grow from only one side of the stems.
Mammals such as deer and rabbits sometimes browse on the foliage. Some species of butterflies and moths do, too.
The stems are strong enough to stay standing through much of the winter, adding interesting contrast to otherwise empty expanses of white snow.
These likable flowers make a great addition to a wildflower garden. Plant breeders have worked with them and have come up with improved varieties that are more tame and will look at home in your main flower garden.
Calico plant, or alternanthera ficoidea, is considered a tropical and tender perennial, but is typically grown as an annual. It grows in states like Texas and Florida but can be very sensitive to harsh sunlight in warmer climates.
Calico grows to an average of 18 to 24 inches high and prefers sun to partial shade or light shade. The blooms range from red to green and may have splotches of red, yellow or orange. The leaves are long and pointy. There are also white flowers but they are inconspicuous. It blooms between the fall and early winter, providing off-season interest to your garden.
Water calico plants regularly but make sure not to overwater them. The have average water needs. Touch the base of the plant and if you feel no moisture in the soil, add water.
Check the soil's pH level with an inexpensive pH test kit purchased at a hardware store or nursery. The plant does the best with a pH of 7.6 (mildly alkaline) to 6.1 (mildly acidic). To make the soil more alkaline by 1.0 point, add 8 ounces of hydrated lime per square yard (see Resources). To make it more acidic, mix in 3.6 ounces of ground rock sulfur per square yard. Adding wood chips or composting leaves will also drop the soil pH.
Plant the calico in a sunny area only if the shade moves in at times during the day. If you notice the leaves drooping, move the plant into a more shaded area. It will revive itself once the sun moves off it.
Keep the soil moderately fertile by adding liquid or granular fertilizer. Liquid goes to work right away and should be applied every 2-3 weeks. Granular should be applied once a month and needs to be watered to activate (see Resources). Follow the manufacturers' instructions.
Make sure there are 4 inches between each plant if you want a carpet effect. If not, plant them 12 inches apart.
Pinch the calico back to keep the plant bushy. To propagate, take 1- to 2-inch-long cuttings and replant them in the bed or pot. They will root quickly.
Pot the plants and bring them inside during the coldest winter months. Take cuttings from them to plant in the beds in the spring.
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Recorded County Distribution: USDA data
|AL, AR, CT, DC, DE, GA, IA, IL, KS, KY, MA, MD, ME, MI, MN, MO, MS, NC, NE, NH, NJ, NY, OH, OK, PA, RI, SC, SD, TN, VA, VT, WI, WV, FL, LA, TX|
|Atlantic and Gulf Coastal Plain||FAC|
|Eastern Mountains and Piedmont||FACW|
|Northcentral and Northeast||FAC|
Almost always occur in wetlands
Usually occur in wetlands, but may occur in non-wetlands
Occur in wetlands and non-wetlands
Usually occur in non-wetlands, but may occur in wetlands
Almost never occur in wetlands
|Species||Symphyotrichum lateriflorum||calico aster|
one-sided aster, small white aster, starved aster