Native Georgia Aster is a Rare Southern Belle
Updated: Oct 9, 2021
October is aster time so I’m starting off my list of ten October native plants with the stunning Georgia aster (symphyotrichum georgianum), the largest flowered and richest colored aster around. I’m not sure my photos capture just how vibrant the flowers are! I bought my first plant at a Georgia Native Plant Society sale around 2015 when Georgia aster was their plant of the year. I seem to remember having to give my name and address to buy it. This must not be the case anymore because I’ve seen Georgia aster at local native plant nurseries recently and there is no paper trail needed.
That first plant turned into a glorious clump in the sunniest part of my yard. Unfortunately it had its own run-in with habitat loss. A few years ago new neighbors callously reclaimed the narrow strip of land along our side of their driveway that we had tended for almost 15 years and previous owners had apparently taken care of for decades. Our irrigation system was on it when we bought our house. I had to move hundreds of native plants and herbs in the hot July sun when temperatures average 90 degrees. Most plants didn’t make it, but I took extra care with the Georgia aster and put it in a slightly shady spot to ease the shock. It limped along and I divided it into multiple plants the following spring. Now if one plant dies there will be plenty more. I did the same with the endangered royal catchfly (silene regia) which also needed to be moved.
Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, North Carolina, and South Carolina are the only states where Georgia aster grows. Starting in 1999 it was considered for the federal endangered species list, but in 2014 it was determined it does not need federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. This is somewhat good news since the decision was made because of the successful conservation work done to protect it before that. Since 2014 coordinated efforts to protect it have continued. I'm guessing the native plant movement has also helped Georgia aster become more popular in residential yards. It is not out of the woods and is still rare and vulnerable.
Georgia aster is rare because of habitat loss due to development, not because it is difficult to grow. It seems to grow anywhere I plant it but does best in open sunny areas. It tolerates a bit of shade but doesn't like wet feet. I learned this the hard way when I lost one of the transplants in a slightly damp area of my yard that is magic for most plants. Georgia aster spreads generously by rhizomes, which are not roots but horizontally spreading stems. It form large, multibranched clumps. Georgia aster needs cross pollination and is not easy to propagate by seed, so the easiest way to start new plants is by dividing the rhizomes as soon as you see new shoots in the early spring.
In the ornamental gardening world where form trumps function, the multiple 2-5 foot lanky branches of Georgia aster would be cut in half midsummer for shorter, bushier plants. The more rewilded my yard becomes, the more I understand that plants grow the way they do for a purpose that may not be obvious when the goal is to keep them tidy. This year I didn’t cut back or stake any of my plants and let them intertwine as they please, like they would in the wild. Everywhere I've planted them, Georgia aster’s stems stretch and mingle with a variety of fall blooming native plants in my naturescaped yard that is quickly turning into a pocket prairie.
For aesthetics, the plants that look great growing with Georgia aster include any of the goldenrods, such as grass-leaved goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia), blue mist flower (conoclinium coelestinum), obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana), clustered mountain mint (symphyotrichum georgianum), native grasses, and all the other asters, If plant tangles are left to overwinter, like they would in a prairie or at the edge of the woods, the dried stalks can provide shelter, cover from predators, and food sources for wildlife.
Native bees and small butterflies seem to appreciate Georgia aster as a fall nectar source. Asters are also a popular moth and butterfly host plants. Georgia aster starts blooming in late September and continues right up until frost. Leave the seed heads to overwinter for little seed-eating birds.
It is getting easier to find at Georgia aster at local native plant nurseries in Georgia. In Atlanta I’ve seen them at Beechhollow, Nearly Native Nursery, and Nightsong Native Plant Nursery. One final thought that bothers me and I have mentioned before is that at this point in time it doesn't make sense to ignore a rare and vulnerable native plant like the Georgia aster yet have the Cherokee rose, a non-native plant considered invasive in much of the southeast, sill designated as the Georgia State Flower. I'm not a fan of erasing history, so maybe there is an appropriate way for the Cherokee rose to be an example of a time long ago when an exotic ornamental from the Far East that is also symbol of an unspeakably dark time in history was used to represent our state.