Thursday, January 31, 2013

Stoke's Aster - A Sensible Plant Named For A Lunartick

Stokesia laevis (Stoke's Aster)
Stokesia laevis, also known as Carthamus laevis, Stoke's Aster and Cornflower Aster, is an heirloom plant you may remember seeing in your grandmother's garden. Many hard-working women of yesteryear had no time for fussy flowers. Today's overwhelmed gardeners aren't much different. Perhaps that's why Stoke's Aster was and is so popular. It's a beautiful, sensible, low maintenance plant.

According to the USDA PLANTS database, Stoke's Aster is native to the southeastern United States, generally found growing in the coastal plain. Native plants are perfectly suited to their environments. That's why they're native. Ubiquitous native plants are ignored. Undesirable native plants are called "weeds." Attractive native plants are called "ornamentals", collected and transplanted to gardens. Perhaps that explains why Stoke's Aster ended up in my grandmothers' flower beds.

Stokesia (pronounced "sto-KEES-ee-ah") was named for Dr. Jonathan Stokes (c. 1755 - 1831). Stokes was an English physician and botanist. Historically, physicians tended to be botanists because doctors relied on plants for their medicinal qualities. They usually corresponded with others about their findings, and often published them. This was the case with Dr. Stokes.

As a member of the original Lunar Society, Stokes often met and corresponded with fellows to discuss science, philosophy and whatever else mattered. Apparently, the Lunar Society was so-named because the members met at night under the full moon. The moonlight made nocturnal travels easier. Eventually, the members were known as "lunarticks", an appellation they merrily embraced. Their convivial society was beneficial personally and professionally.

Jonathan Stokes published books on botany including A Botanical Materia Medica: Consisting of the Generic and Specific Characters of the Plants Used in Medicine and Diet, with Synonyms, and References to Medical Authors (1812) and Botanical Commentaries (1830). Botanical Commentaries would be most interesting to the layman.

Stokesia flowers appear from spring to fall. They're about 3 inches in diameter and usually purple, though colors may range to pinkish and nearly white. They are borne on strong stems. They're long-lasting, too.

Foliage is herbaceous. The plant rosette may remain green during winter months in warmer climates. Leaf surfaces are smooth. Plants grow to 12 inches height and spread from 12 to 15 inches.

Stoke's Aster is hardy in USDA climate zones 5 through 10. They thrive in full sun to partial shade, but flowering is most profuse in full sun. Plant in well-drained, loamy to sandy loam soil with pH ranging from 5.6 to 7.5. Take a soil sample to your local Cooperative Extension Office for analysis. If stokesias fail, the problem can usually be traced to poor drainage or too little sun exposure.

Stokesia laevis is best known for colorful, long-lasting flowers. In addition, the flowers attract butterflies. Plants are deer-resistant, drought-tolerant and somewhat salt-tolerant.

Stoke's Aster, a perennial plant, is well-suited to garden borders, butterfly gardens, cut flower gardens and xeriscaping.

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