Top Ten Performers: #6 China Asters

“Bonita Shell Pink” aster

Admittedly, I knew very little about asters when I began researching flowers for cutting. I was very familiar with perennial asters, those often bushy plants with tiny 1″ or less flowers with narrow ray-like petals often sold in pots in late summer/early autumn at the same time as mums, but I was not impressed. I also was familiar with the wild dark purple or white asters often reaching over 3′ in height and width that grow commonly along the edge of my woods and roadsides. Pollinators love them, but not I. So it was with some skepticism after seeing asters on a couple of “Plants for Cutting” lists that I looked them up in my Ball RedBook (the Bible for professional growers) and found that way back in the 1920’s George J. Ball developed the “forebear of today’s finest aster varieties” and they were a highly profitable florist’s crop. So, next I checked my favorite seed catalog (Geo) and found 25 listings! These are “China” asters which are annuals rather than perennials, with much larger, showier flowers. Japanese breeders have created some beauties with longer stems and a wide range of colors. At least I should give them a try. So in 2021, I grew just a few plants each of two colors of the “Bonita” series, the “Shell Pink” (top photo) shown above and “Light Blue.” (below) I liked them very much, but they were of the “one cut and done” type so in 2022 I chose three different varieties.

One of the last bouquets with asters (the “blue” with white center) dahlias, strawflowers, sunflowers, Blue Bedder salvia and Mandarin Orange balm.

The first was “Benary Princess Mix” reportedly “densely petaled flowers often with a paler center creating a striking contrast.” The colors available are Blue and Salmon Rose separately but I chose the mix, which also contained some creams, nearly reds and pinks that apparently aren’t available separately. I found these to have nice long, usable side branches after the center flower was cut and the plants definitely tolerated the change to hot weather best of the three varieties I planted. Right off the bat, I wished I’d planted lots more, especially the blue which combined so well with sweet peas. And then I discovered that the blue dries to a deep navy blue that is gorgeous in dried arrangements!

The Benary Princess Blue aster dried to almost a navy blue!

It is holding its color very well, so this year, any blooms that are too short will be clipped, hung and dried for autumn and winter use, and I’ll be trying some of the other colors as well.

The large white flower just above the bow is a “Duchesse” aster in a May 29th bouquet.

The second variety planted was “Duchesse Formula Mix” with a single line description “28”, upright, large incurved peony type flowers.” Despite the limited praise, I chose it and I’m glad I did. There were some lovely bi-colors, white, cream, lavender, rose and pink blooms. They were the first to form buds and bloom (May 15), so they were available with the early stock, ranunculus, and calendulas. This one also produced usable side branches after the center stem was harvested.

The third was “Valkyrie Mix” which was not listed in Geo’s catalog so I ordered it from Pinetree (another of my favorite seed suppliers) because it had a spiky shape of 3-5″ needle petals, 24″ tall in yellow, white, pink, rose and red blossoms. I like this one as well because it is definitely showy, but it was the last to bloom and the first to quit blooming once the heat came. Still, I’m growing it again because it was really pretty and bouquet recipients often asked what they were.

“Valkyrie” asters in white and pink. Asters are valuable as focal flowers early in the season, with stock, May Queen shastas, penstemon, pac choy blooms, pea foliage and dianthus. These bouquets were ready for delivery on May 24.

Asters are not for the impatient grower. Seeds should be started indoors, sown 1/8″ deep and kept evenly moist throughout the growing period. They may take 14 days to germinate according to some sources, but mine germinated (on a heat mat) in 3 days! I seeded mine January 28 in rows in an open flat and plan to repeat that this month. Most asters take 110-120 days after germination to flower. I found that they have large root systems quickly, so don’t wait to transplant into a larger plug flat or pot. And DO keep them evenly moist but not in standing water.

Sometimes the very first aster stems are short, like those in the front bucket but I can use them in the arrangements made in water bottle “vases” or hang them to dry. The later stems are longer. A cart of just-picked flowers ready to go into the basement for conditioning. (Left to right, top to bottom: feverfew, May Queen shastas, pac choy blooms, a few calendula; stock, dianthus, and asters in front.

Asters are pretty tough once they get going. They can take cold temperatures. I know because a flat of plugs I mistakenly left outdoors survived 24 degrees and the soil being frozen solid! (Yes, I screw up occasionally!) The plugs were planted out March 14 in a low tunnel over raised beds, each with a handful of compost in the hole. Harvest began in earnest May 24 and continued until really hot weather hit the end of June. They do need consistent water to keep blooming.

For longest vase life, harvest when the outer rays begin to open, put immediately into tepid water with a bit of food dissolved. They have a very nice vase life even if picked a bit more open, and as mentioned earlier some of the darker colors dry very nicely as well.

As a test, I did a late sowing in early July and grew them in flats in the shade on the basement patio, planted out the end of August and had flowers to go with dahlias through October. Not sure I’ll do it again, because there were plenty of other flowers to choose from at that point and it was extra effort to keep them watered and relatively happy until the weather cooled a bit, even with shade cloth. But you may live where the autumn season lasts longer and summers aren’t so hot, so it may be less work.

According to many, asters are subject to a disease called “aster yellows” so they should be planted in a different location each year as an aid to prevention. I haven’t had any problems (knock wood) but I will rotate them throughout the beds over the years just in case. As with most “daisy” form flowers, asters are excellent for pollinators so give them a try.


About carolee

A former professional herb and lavender grower, now just growing for joy in my new potager. When I'm not in the garden, I'm in the kitchen, writing, or traveling to great gardens.
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2 Responses to Top Ten Performers: #6 China Asters

  1. Dawn Hubbell says:

    Great post and beautiful asters, Carolee.


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