Shade Tolerant Asters of Eastern North America

by cazort

Shade tolerant asters, which grow, thrive, and bloom in part shade to full shade, in Eastern North America.

Asters are a broad group of plants in the composite family, with daisy-like flowers, albeit with narrower petals than most daisies. Asters make popular landscaping plants as they can be grown with little care, and perennial asters will persist through many years. Native asters also make excellent additions to native plant gardens, and their wind-dispersed seeds can help make a home garden have a positive effect on surrounding wild ecosystems.

Most asters are sun-loving species, and either cannot be grown at all in shade, or bloom poorly without good sun.

But asters are a large, diverse group, and their ranks include a handful of species which are adapted to shadier conditions. This page highlights the shade tolerant asters. If you are a gardener who has shady conditions in your yard, but wants to grow asters, this page is for you...get excited, because there are more options than you might have realized!

Do you garden in shady conditions?

White Wood Aster, Eurybia divaricata

White Wood Aster, Licensed under CC BY 2.5.
White Wood Aster, Licensed under CC B...
White Wood Aster, Blooming in Shade
White Wood Aster, Blooming in Shade
Photo by Alex Zorach
Foliage of White Wood Aster growing in a forest
Foliage of White Wood Aster growing i...
Photo by Alex Zorach
Tolerates full shade, dry conditions, and relatively poor soil. Blooms white.

The White Wood Aster is known by the scientific name Eurybia divaricata, previously classified as Aster divaricatus.  This plant is among the most shade tolerant of all asters, and it is truly a shade-loving plant.  It grows and thrives in full shade, even sometimes dense shade, and actually grows better in part shade than it does in sun.

In addition to its tolerance of shady conditions, this species is also tolerant of dry conditions, and can grow and thrive in poor, gravely soil, although it also grows well in rich soil so long as it is well-drained.

It blooms August-September, and its flowers are white with yellow centers or sometimes brown or purplish centers.  The flowers are small but numerous, and are among the showiest you can find for fall-blooming plants in full-shade.

This plant is native to a wide range in eastern North America, and attracts butterflies, and supports a number of native insects that in turn provide food for nesting birds.  Planting this plant can be beneficial to the environment if you live near forested areas that are overrun with invasive plants, as this plant has wind-dispersed seeds, and it is able to hold its own against non-native plants even in degraded ecosystems.

Read more about this plant on its Missouri Botanical Garden's page, or its Wikipedia article.

Read the full article on this plant if you are interested in it!
The white wood aster is among the most shade tolerant of fall-blooming wildflowers native to Eastern North America. It is a versatile and robust plant, easy to cultivate.

Bigleaf Aster or Large-leaved Aster, Eurybia macrophylla

Flower, Photo by wackybadger, Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
Flower, Photo by wackybadger, License...
Foliage, Photo by Fungus Guy, Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.
Foliage, Photo by Fungus Guy, License...
Purplish to light-blue to white flowers, showy foliage with very large leaves

The bigleaf aster, or large-leaved aster, Eurybia macrophylla, is a shade-tolerant aster that has unusually large, fuzzy leaves.  The leaves stay mostly close to the ground, but the flower stalks reach 2-4 feet in height, and the plant can spread out considerably in the horizontal direction.

It grows and flowers best in part-shade, but can tolerate full shade (perhaps not quite as well as the white wood aster).  The flowers are violet to pale blue, with yellow centers, and compared to the blue wood aster, which has compact flowers with short rays, the petals of this species are longer, giving it a more wispy look when blooming.  It often blooms September-October, later than a lot of other flowers.  Its foliage is very attractive and it is often grown more for its leaves, which concentrate in a whorl at the base of the plant, than its bloom.

Read more about this plant on the Missouri Botanical Garden's page, or on Wikipedia.

Blue Wood Aster, Symphyotrichum cordifolium

Flowers, Photo by Alex Zorach (Me)
Flowers, Photo by Alex Zorach (Me)
Heart-shaped leaves, with blooms on the right
Heart-shaped leaves, with blooms on t...
Photo by Alex Zorach

Blue Wood Aster

The blue wood aster, also called the heartleaf aster, is one of my favorite plants.

It is a prolific bloomer, producing a large number of pale blue to lavender-blue flowers, with yellow or purple centers, in late summer to early fall.  Its foliage is also unique and attractive, with distinctive heart-shaped leaves that have a slight bluish tint to them.
It initially grows upright, but, if not grown amongst other plants, by the time it blooms the stalks often fall over.
Compared to the white wood aster, the blue wood aster is slightly less tolerant of deep shade conditions, but it still thrives in part shade, and can be grown under the shade of trees that allow scattered light through, or in exposures where it receives only dappled sunlight.

My Detailed Article on This Flower, If You Want To Read More
The blue wood aster, Symphyotrichum cordifolium, a wildflower native to eastern North America: growing info and uses for this plant in gardening and landscaping.

Whorled Aster, Oclemena acuminata

Foliage and Flower, Photo by Kerry Woods, Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Foliage and Flower, Photo by Kerry Wo...

The Whorled AsterOclemena acuminata, previously named Aster divaricatus, is a somewhat different-looking plant from the other asters featured above.  It is relatively easy to identify even from its leaves.  It is named for the fact that its leaves tend to grow in a whorled pattern.

The whorled aster blooms white with yellow to brown/purplish centers, and it tends to bloom July through October, depending on region and conditions.  The petals on each flower are sparse and spindly, tending to curve backwards.

This species is another good choice for dense shade, although it is also more tolerant of full sun than the white wood aster, which truly prefers shade.  It has a slightly smaller native range than some of the other species, found from far northern Georgia and eastern Tennessee, concentrating more in the northeast.

You can read more about this species on the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center's page for it, or on its USDA Plants Profile.

Did you know of these species before reading this page?

I recommend this book if you live in the Southeast or Mid-Atlantic and are interested in learning more about growing and propagating wildflowers.
Growing and Propagating Wild Flowers

This book, the most complete and expert treatment of wild flower propagation and cultivation to date, offers a sure approach to gardening with native plants while practicing goo...

View on Amazon

Updated: 08/07/2014, cazort
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Questions? Comments? Feedback?

Mira on 06/10/2014

Now that I look at them again, I do think I have seen them in the wild. I will keep an eye open for them in the fall, should I get lucky to escape the city :-)

cazort on 06/09/2014

Yes! Asters do grow in the wild, and many of them are more commonly found in the wild than in cultivation. Asters are incredibly diverse...hundreds of different species, most are sun loving though...which is why I made this page, to draw attention to the few types that are easy to grow in shade.

Aster is a bit of an ill-defined group, they all used to be grouped in the same scientific Genus, "Aster", but now they're split up among different genuses.

Most asters are very common in meadows and along roadsides and weedy areas (including vacant lots in cities), but the ones on this page are more common in forests and edges or gaps in woodlands.

If you want to see asters in the wild, look in the fall--as nearly all of them are fall blooming. The most showy is probably the New England Aster, which is bright purple with a yellow center. They range through various shades of white, yellow, blue, and purple...most have yellow centers.

Mira on 06/09/2014

I didn't know of asters before reading this. Now I'll keep an eye open to see if I spot them in people's gardens. Would they also grow in the wild? You mention their seeds spread quite easily.

VioletteRose on 06/04/2014

They look so pretty.

dustytoes on 06/04/2014

That is good to know. I love having new free plants growing in my yard and I love plants that are easy to grow and don't need watering all the time. Just in case I forget.

cazort on 06/04/2014

Most asters are sun-loving, so it would make sense that you don't have them if you have a lot of shade...but I recommend checking some of these out because they are very fun plants. Another great thing that I haven't yet written about on this page, is that they are easy to propagate.

Asters produce abundant wind-dispersed seeds after they bloom, in late fall, so if you gather the seeds and distribute them in your garden, it's likely that some will come up if conditions are right. I've seen both white and blue wood aster come up from seed where I live. In one place, I just idly scattered some seed and white wood aster came up. The blue one also works like that but it may require a bit more light to germinate.

They're also very easy to transplant, or even propagate from dividing root cuttings. You don't need much root for them to survive. A few weeks ago I tried digging up a small white wood aster, and I broke off the root, and there was barely 1 cm of root left. Most of the leaves died down, but a few tiny leaves remained, and just the other day, I realized that it was growing again and now it has several new leaves.

dustytoes on 06/04/2014

I do have a lot of shade in my yard, but I don't have any asters! Now I am wondering why. I grow hostas and astilbe and impatiens.

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