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Lady in black

One of my favorite fall perennials is the calico, or horizontal, aster and cultivar (cultivated variety) Lady in Black. This short perennial is hardy, with no serious problems, is deer resistant, and its many small flowers are a rare late-season treat for butterflies. Asters are in the composite or daisy family. The species name for this one (lateriflorus) comes from the fact flowers are often lateral or on the sides of stems. Long known as being in the aster genus (Aster lateriflorus), botanists have recently reclassified it with a much more complicated and still seldom seen name (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum). Flowers are small, only about one quarter to one half inch wide, yet covering the plants with branching sprays in fall gives quite a show. The small white asters have raspberry-colored centers, giving rise to the common name of calico aster. The horizontal aster variety (var. horizontalis) has stems more in the horizontal plane, hence its name. Lady in Black has dark to purplish stems, and purplish leaves, which provide a nice contrast to the white flowers. It is similar to the older cultivar Prince, only more upright. While the horizontal aster may get to about two feet high and wide, Lady in Black may get to three feet high and wide. It may be kept shorter by pinching stems back by one third to one half in early summer. Under ideal conditions, if too tall it may need staking. Lady in Black originally comes from the garden of Herman Van Beusekom in Holland, while Prince was introduced by Dr. Alan Leslie of Monksilver Nursery, England. The calico aster species is native to northeastern North America, often seen as one of the first plants to come into abandoned pastures. As such it is good for native plant gardens and meadow plantings. It is also attractive massed in more formal gardens, or placed along walks. Blooming best in full sun in the north, it will grow in part shade just with less vigor and fewer flowers. Lady in Black will have less purple color with less sun. This species is found, and should be planted, in average to dry, well-drained soil. It is hardy in USDA zones 4 through 8, perhaps even colder. Other than the mentioned possible pinching in early summer, this plant needs little care. Being one step removed from the native species, it requires little fertility. Applying a shovel full of compost around plants in spring as they emerge will help boost growth, as will an annual application of an organic fertilizer. Compost or similar organic matter such as peat moss, especially at planting, is much more beneficial in clay or sandy soils. Plants will seldom need dividing, unless they are getting too large, or you need extra plants for yourself or friends. Lady in Black combines well with black-eyed susan, red-leaved sedum, Russian sage, ornamental grasses such as red-leaved or blue-leaved switchgrass, interplanted with moor grass, or in front of New York asters. Look for this choice recent perennial online or in complete garden stores and specialty perennial nurseries. More choice, new, or underutilized perennials and their descriptions can be found online on Perrys Perennial Pages ( pss.uvm.edu/ppp/perpix.htm ).

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