As most most perennials start to fade and tree leaves transform into their brilliant fall coats, white aster plants (among other varieties) provide mini fireworks displays of color in the garden. Actually, a lot of them aren’t in the garden because they’ve just appeared wherever their seeds have ended up—at least in my yard they have. They’re in the lawn, in the stones of my firepit, at the edge of the ravine. I love coming across their delicate blooms, shining through a pile of dead leaves. Most perennial asters, however, are certainly far from delicate. Many will bloom through October and even into November, providing late-season nourishment for pollinator stragglers, like bees and butterflies, and other beneficial insects. And they’ll hang around through several frosts.
If you look closely at their tiny faces, white aster flowers have similarities, but they’re all slightly different. Sometimes it’s the leaves that help to identify them, others it’s the shape of the petal or the center of the flower. In this article, I’m going to share a few white asters that you can choose for your garden, if you live within the plant’s native range.
Identifying asters, including white aster varieties
At a glance, some may think an aster is an aster is an aster. But there are about 150 species of aster native to the United States and Canada, and about 350 species around the world. Additionally, there are a number of cultivated asters, as well as extended members of the Asteraceae family, which can get confusing. Consequently, this could be why there are several native asters that were renamed a few years ago, many by Guy Nesom, an American botanist.
There are lots of great books and websites that can help you identify wildflowers. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center offers a great database for North America. I use the Ontario Wildflowers website a lot because that’s where I live, as well as the Seek by iNaturalist app, as I can take a photo to ID a plant right on the spot. Reference guides include the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers: Eastern Region and the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers: Western Region, as well as Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide. Local native plant nurseries can be great sources of seedlings and information.
White wood aster (Eurybia divaricata)
The white wood aster (Eurybia divaricata) thrives in part shade to full shade areas. It’s also drought tolerant, making it a nice option for a dry shade garden. This woodland plant thrives in slightly acidic soils, and grows to be about 12 to 35 inches (30 to 90 cm) tall. You’ll often find it in deciduous forests with sugar maple and American beech trees.
The plant has an interesting set of leaves in that the lower leaves are shaped like hearts and the upper leaves are elongated and serrated. The center of the flowers is yellow or purple.
White wood aster grows in many of the eastern states, from New England, right down to Alabama. In Canada, it is considered a “Species at Risk,” as it’s only found in the Niagara region of southern Ontario, and in southwestern Quebec. It is a host plant for Pearly crescent butterflies.
Hairy White Oldfield Aster (Symphyotrichum pilosum var. pilosum)
If you’re wondering how Hairy White Oldfield Aster (Symphyotrichum pilosum var. pilosum) got its name, the stems and branches of this variety often are covered in fuzzy white hairs. This is also why this variety is referred to by frost aster. The stems look like they’ve been touched by frost.
The leaves of this hairy aster are slender and rigid, and many branches on this one- to three-foot plant produce sprays of flowers throughout the fall. It prefers full sun and sandy soils. In the wild it appears in both dry and moderately moist thickets and clearings.
The native range is quite vast. In Canada, it grows in Ontario and Quebec, as well as in British Columbia. In the U.S. it appears from Maine to Florida and Louisiana, and Minnesota to Kansas.
Heath aster (Heath Aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides)
White heath Aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides) has some other common names, including many-flowered aster and tufted white prairie aster. It features many flowers packed closely together in clusters along the same stem that features small leaves, giving it a bushy appearance. The plant reaches about one to three feet in height. The needle-like bracts on the stems are reminiscent of heath plants.
Heath aster grows in most Canadian provinces, except the East Coast, and about 39 states. The plant spreads by rhizomes and the flower heads become fluffy seeds that disperse in the wind.
Plant in full sun. Heath aster is pretty hardy and drought tolerant, and will survive in various soil conditions.
Upland white aster (Solidago ptarmicoides)
Now here’s a confusing aster. Upland white aster (Solidago ptarmicoides) was re-classified as a goldenrod, although it is still in the Asteraceae family. And it looks like an aster and nothing like what I think of when I picture goldenrod. Other common names include prairie aster, stiff aster, sneezewort aster, prairie flat-top goldenrod, and white flat-top goldenrod. The plant is known to hybridize in nature with other goldenrods.
Upland white aster grows in dry, full-sun conditions and is commonly found in dry prairies and open woodlands.
You can find upland white aster on the East Coast of Canada, into Quebec, and all the way to Saskatchewan. In the U.S. it grows from New York to Missouri, down through the southern states of Georgia and Arkansas, and into Montana and Colorado.
Parasol whitetop (Doellingeria umbellata)
The parasol whitetop aster (Doellingeria umbellata) can reach up to five feet in height. It likes full sun and moist soil. This variety is a bit of an aggressive spreader if left.
Parasol whitetop is also called flat-topped white aster and umbellate aster. The leaves are small and slender with a distinguishable vein pattern. Flowers grow at the ends of the branches in clusters.
It is native from the East Coast of Canada (including the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon) to Manitoba, and the eastern and north-central United States. It is the larval host plant of pearly crescent and Harris checkerspot butterflies.
Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)
Don’t let the name of this aster fool you. The flower color of blue wood aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium) can range from white to blue to burgundy-purple. Other names include common blue wood aster and heart-leaved aster.
Blue wood aster blooms much earlier in the southern states where it’s native. It blooms towards in late summer or early fall in the northern parts of its territory. In Canada, it’s native from the Maritime provinces (except Newfoundland) to Ontario, and in much of the eastern and central U.S.
The plant grows to be about three to six feet tall, prefers full sun, and is drought tolerant. Leaves are more of a grey-green hue. Blue wood aster grows in upland meadows and forests, which are dryer, sandier environments.
Articles that mention growing asters and attracting pollinators
- Aster Purple Dome: A late-blooming star of the fall garden
- Asters are among the host plants you can add to the garden for butterflies
- Perennial asters add late-season beauty to the garden
- Woodland asters, among other plants, provide foraging habitat for butterflies
Pin your favorite white aster varieties to your native plants wishlist.
One thing about native asters that I’ve noticed in my own yard is that they are a favorite of nibbling rabbits. I have several native asters and have had to fence them with rabbit proof wire or they’ll get snipped to the ground all season long.