Over the last ten years as I've really focused on becoming a learner of garden design, I've been fortunate to visit thousands of gardens across the United States and talk with talented gardeners and designers around the world. There are so many styles of gardens, and each can be beautiful. There has been a plant that is consistent in all the gardens that inspire me. Some of those gardens are slightly more formal and others, a beautiful art of slightly orchestrating nature. In both, the same plant providing a cloud of flowers that seems to connect color, form, and texture effortlessly.
The plant is Aster. Now, because of some relatively new taxonomic changes, some of what we knew as Aster are now Symphiotrichum or Eurybia. The larger order these plants belong in is still Asteraceae. There are over 1900 genera of plants in the order Asteraceae including Symphiotrichum, as well as plants like Dahlia, making it one of the two largest orders of flowering plants on earth.
Though there is irony in this being one of the largest groups of flowering plants on Earth, but the group we call by the common name Aster we don't know or notice much at all, as if they are hidden in plain sight. They're used expertly in great gardens all over the world, but when many gardeners are presented with them, the response is tepid at best. Unlike their Dahlia relatives, Symphiotrichum have small flowers that don't scream for attention but rather build mood and ambiance in a garden.
Paul Picton was a recent guest on the podcast, and his work and gardening with Symphiotrichums is truly world-class. He authored the book "Aster" along with his daughter, Helen Picton. It is an incredible gateway into understanding these plants better and how to use them in gardens. Paul's family has been growing and gardening with "Asters" for three generations, and the Picton Garden and old Court Nurseries are an artistry in how to use Symphiotrichum and Eurybia to create atmosphere.
What stands out to me is how the Symphiotrichum create a gentle cloud of color and form underneath other plants in the late summer and into fall, acting as these sprays of small flowers that support other late season flowers like Dahlias and grasses.
An American designer who I feel uses in Symphiotrichum extremely well is Austin Eischeid. His use of Symphiotrichum 'Little Carlow' brought my attention to the plant in way I hadn't thought of before. Seeing him use it at Millenium Park in Chicago as this incredible burst of purple-blue late season color in a drift contrasted by the change to Autumnal color tones in other plants was truly eye-opening.
One of the differences here is looking at a garden as a collection of plants rather than as individuals. As bold and beautiful as flowers like Dahlias and Peonies are in a garden by themselves, they will never truly sing. Surrounded by other talented musicians, they are lifted to new heights that they would not have reached on their own.
Beginning to look at plants as players not expected to live up to blooming all year or having flowers seen from Google maps changes the way we garden and the way we see plants. If we begin to look at a plant like Eurybia 'Twilight' as this cloud of light purples flowers that begins to bloom in September when so many plants are done flowering, it can change our perspective and our garden.