Aster oblongiflorus 'Fanny' flowers
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Symphytrichum oblongifolium ‘Fanny’

Symphyotrichum oblongifolium ‘Fanny’ and I go way back…back to 1992, when I was given my first start by our customer, Ruth Knopf…the antique rose expert at South Carolina’s Boone Hall Plantation near Charleston. Symphyotrichum oblongifolium is a North American native aster, although the taxonomic world is now trying to convince us that North America asters aren’t really asters. The taxonomists didn’t really help their case by changing the name of native asters to the virtually unpronounceable genus Symphyotrichum. Symphyotrichum oblongifolium has a wide but scattered native range from Montana to Mississippi, with the center of distribution in Missouri and Kansas. In North Carolina, Symphyotrichum oblongifolium is only found in Madison County…just before you cross into Tennessee.   

We’re not sure exactly from what part of its natural range Symphyotrichum ‘Fanny’ originated, but it was given to Ruth by her maid who was, yes, named Fanny. Fanny shared that the aster had been a pass-along plant through generations of her family. Ruth was so impressed with her new aster, that she named it Aster ‘Fanny’ and subsequently shared the plant with Nancy Goodwin of the former mail order nursery, Montrose in Hillsborough, NC, and it was there that it entered commerce. At the time, there were only two aster species in widespread US commerce, Symphyotrichum novae-angliae and Symphyotrichum novae-belgii, both US natives, but natives that had been refined and selected in Europe for their ability to tolerate cool summers.  Symphyotrichum ‘Fanny’ was one of the few highly ornamental asters that actually thrived in the heat and humidity of the southeast US.
Despite its fame among plant nerds who frequented the Montrose catalogs before they closed, Symphyotrichum ‘Fanny’ never got the widespread popularity it deserved…probably because of its fall flowering time. Garden centers and box stores are always more interested in plants that flower in spring when customers are shopping than those which flower at the tail end of the season when most gardeners have thrown in the horticultural towel for the year.
Symphyotrichum oblongifolium ‘Fanny’ is also large, so it’s not a plant for tiny city gardens. Although it tops out at less than 2’ in height, it can easily have a 10’ wide spread when grown in rich, well-tended soils. You can, however, keep the width in check to a point, by growing it near other sturdy plants, which will actually force the growth upward to 4’ tall. In the wild, Symphyotrichum oblongifolium is found in dry shale, gravelly, or sandy alkaline prairie soils, but in the garden, it responds amazing well to slightly acid, compost enriched garden soil and regular irrigation.
Regardless of how you grow Symphyotrichum oblongifolium…as long as it’s in full sun for at least half a day, the sight of a clump coming into full flower in mid-October is nothing short of breathtaking. Over a period of a week as the State Fair pulls into town, the 2” lavender daisies begin to open until you’re staring at a sea of incredible frost-tolerant color for the next month. Not only are the flowers a reason to grow this, but the fragrant foliage also bears mentioning. Symphyotrichum oblongifolium isn’t called aromatic aster for no reason. Although a stiff breezing can send the scent wafting through the air, planting Fanny’s aster near a walk or driveway is preferred so the fragrance is released every time you brush against it. If you’re got the space, I hope consider plopping a big Fanny in the middle of your garden for a splendid fall show.

– Tony Avent

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