Autumn’s last buzz – Elliott’s Aster

Elliott’s aster (Symphyotrichum elliottii) is the absolute last of our asters to flower at JLBG. It doesn’t begin to flower until the first of November and withstands the mild frosts of October like they didn’t even happen. It is naturally found in tidal freshwater marshes and other moist open sites from the Virginia and Carolina coastal plain south to Florida and west to Louisiana. Though it hails from moist environments it thrives under general garden conditions if the soil isn’t allowed to become too droughty.

Symphyotrichum elliottii in flower
Symphyotrichum elliottii

The plant has a lot to recommend it besides the time of flower. It forms stiff stems rising 5-6’ tall crowned with a dense pyramidal arrangement of inflorescences of pale pink with a hint bluish-purple ray flowers and bright yellow disk flowers. The lack of lanky branches allows this tall aster to display its flowers without flopping all over the rest of your garden in the manner typical of asters. It spreads via rhizomes, so you need to be sure to give it space to roam a bit. It provides a dramatic impact when planted at the back of borders. Though it spreads, it doesn’t roam far from the parent plant and can be easily kept in place by yearly thinning of the outer edges of the clumps.

A field of aster - Symphyotrichum elliottii
Symphyotrichum elliottii

The most outstanding feature of this beautiful aster to me is the number and diversity of pollinators it supports. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a plant that attracted more. In addition to swarms of honeybees, bumblebees, carpenter, and solitary bees the flowers draw in numerous pollinating flies, halictids, moths and skippers. I love plants that extend the color season and though we all think about early spring, we really should also plant to extend our love affair with color into the leafless season and Elliott’s aster does this is a big way.

-Patrick

A bee doing it's thing with Elliott’s Aster
Symphyotrichum elliottii

A new hardy yellow-flowered Begonia from Arunachal Pradesh

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History is replete with examples of new plant species that are first encountered by intrepid plant explorers, yet described later by taxonomists. Salvia darcyi was discovered and introduced into cultivation by Carl Schoenfeld and John Fairey of Yucca Do Nursery. Three years later, they guided researchers to the site who subsequently described the species without acknowledging the original collector. It is unfortunate that the act of discovery by those in horticultural circles are so seldomly recognized (not to mention the indigenous peoples who have known many of them for eons).

Upon my first visit to Heronswood in the autumn of 2019 I was shown a splendid robust Begonia with heavily lobed leaves, short upright stems, and amazing tight-clumping habit with yellow (yes yellow!) flowers. I immediately confirmed that this was a heretofore undescribed species. The plants had been grown from the seed collection made by Dan Hinkley from Arunachal Pradesh India. These plants were shared by Mr. Hinkley with Monrovia who immediately released it under the name TectonicTM Eruption Begonia (Begonia sp. DJH18072).

The unknown Begonia has now been given a formal scientific name Begonia lorentzonii by Swedish taxonomist Eric Wahsteen and the Indian researcher Dipankar Borah, based on two specimens collected by Borah in November of 2018 (incidentally, after Dan Hinkley’s collection). No mention of the plant in cultivation or the contribution of Dan is found in the publication despite the fact that quite a few of the Begonia aficionado crowd around the globe had by then become familiar with the plant. Regardless of the name, this species is among the most spectacular hardy garden plants for cool but not cold climates.

Begonia lorentzonii at Heronswood
Begonia lorentzonii
Begonia lorentzonii starting to bloom
                Begonia lorentzonii

Begonia lorentzonii has proven hardy at Heronswood (zone 8a) where it was left outside with only a covering of leaves and straw in temperatures ranging into the low teens and at least a week long stretch of consistently below freezing temperatures which resulted in ground freeze. It forms 2-2.5’ tall dense clumps with one of the best forms I’ve seen in a cold hardy species.

In late summer through late autumn it is adorned with yellow flowers beset with hairlike projections on the outer surface of the tepals produced on stems that equal or are slightly shorter than the leaves. Begonia lovers should visit the Renaissance Garden at Heronswood to see mature plants in their full glory and a pilgrimage to Heronswood is a must for all hardy Begonia lovers as the collection of rare and unusual cold hardy species is probably the best among our public gardens. While this startling plant appears to be perfectly adapted to life in the mild Pacific Northwest it remains to be seen what its tolerance for heat will be. It was an honor and pleasure to grow and nurture these plants during my time at Heronswood and I must admit my heart and mind will forever be drawn to that sacred space of ground whenever I glimpse a Begonia of any species.

Dr. Patrick McMillan