Garden Notes: Aronias

Unassuming and humble looking — the latest ‘superberry.’

Aronias and asters: easily overlooked by the wayside, they add beauty and sustainability in garden settings.- Susan Safford

The existence of gardens, their creation and dynamics, is always evolving. Their scope, content, and care all shift according to knowledge, culture, and aesthetics. Today’s wave of designers, plantsmen (and women), naturalists, and gardeners has a different outlook from those of mid-20th century or pre-WWI practitioners. It is sometimes called “post-wild” planting.

While “floral perfection” will always play a role in gardens and garden making, today’s awareness has widened considerably from yesterday’s stiffness and absolutism. Period garden books feature sepia-tinted photographs of borders punctuated every 30 feet by a perfectly trained standard rose, like so many lollipops, to which an army of gardeners and under-gardeners applied all their knowledge and skills.

A different and increasing kind of discipline in planting and gardens relies on knowledge of what plants, soils, and landscapes themselves want (or support), reflecting an evolving perspective. It is not so much about what the human manipulations and limitless inputs can produce, as it is to create livable and sustainable landscapes. How can a garden bring joy to its humans and partner with the natural world as well?

Post-wild plants

The Vineyard has two humble seasonal beauties, asters and aronia, which are adaptable to post-wild planting, and which enrich the natural bounty of the Island autumn.

Waiting demurely by the roadsides for their place in the spotlight are myriad asters. The goldenrods, now grayed-out, fluff up their seeds and send them away on the wind, ceding the front-and-center position they have occupied in the Island’s open areas since mid-August. Taking their place are garlands of lavender from blue to violet to white, beside every sunny bank, roadside, and even shaded open patches of woodland.

As Allan Keith and Steve Spongberg write in “Island Life,” “The genus Aster has recently been divested of the majority of its species . . .  and the Vineyard taxa have been placed in the segregate genera Doellingeria, Eurybia, Ionactis, Oclemena, Sericocarpus, and Symphyotrichum . . .”

This is because botanical science has learned, via advanced techniques, that the plants lumped together into one genus with many species were so varied that they constituted separate genera. I cheated and went to an older resource, “The Flora of Martha’s Vineyard,” to get a simple count of aster* species that grow on the Vineyard. There are 25. (*Keith and Spongberg reassure us: “Ironically but thankfully, the common name of aster is retained for all …”)

Considering asters’ ubiquity, it is surprising to read in “Flora” how many of these 25 species are rare and found in only a handful of Island locations. That means the asters we see everywhere are probably just the eight commonly occurring ones. I can identify with certainty only a couple; they all glorify our October days, though.

As for cultivated asters, let Katherine Tracey of North Dartmouth’s Avant Gardens be your guide. Informed by her taste and experience, her list names a favorite five to look for: Symphyotrichum x Vasterival; S. x Mary’s White; Aster ageratoides Ezo Murasaki; S. laeve ‘Bluebird,’ and S. ericoides. My own favorite cultivated aster is starry white Monte Cassino, variously described as a regional variant of S. ericoides or A. pilosus.

And Aronias  

Colonies of spindly little things — neither tree, bush, nor shrub sounds exactly accurate — in open Island woodland, sporting topknots of scarlet leaves and dangling bunches of black, red, or purple fruits: aronias (in the Rosaceae) are unassuming and humble looking, especially so considering that the plant is the source of one of the latest “superberry” crazes, …

Give an aronia conditions to its liking, however, and it becomes a slender icon of berried fall color and abundance, in addition to its bundle of health benefits. As the links above describe, the antioxidant and phyto-protective qualities of aronia berries have been well researched, including: anti-oxidant; urinary tract health; improves blood circulation, blood vessel integrity, and blood pressure regulation; treatment of diabetes; gastro-protective effect; anti-carcinogenic; anti-inflammatory, anti-viral; eye protective; and weight control.

Three species of aronia grow naturally in both damp or dry Vineyard woods: A. arbutifolia, A. prunifolia, and A. melanocarpa. Cultivated A. arbutifolia ‘Brilliantissima’ is a splendid selected form. Fruit of A. melanocarpa has the most concentrated source of beneficial properties, but also the bitterest taste. Fruits of all may be dried for use in teas, or may be used in preserves and cordials.


Putting the Garden to Bed

If adhering to traditional practice, projects for fall garden maintenance are cutting back and division of perennials and the raking of leaves. This biomass would be composted, ideally. This helps reveal the structure of the garden, “the bones,” and shows where plants may be in need of re-positioning or division. Let’s not forget planting spring-flowering bulbs.

Bed work is less destructive to soil structure when done now, since beds have all winter to bounce back before spring. Leave subshrubs such as potentilla, caryopteris, lavender, and buddleia intact, to be protected by their old wood over the winter.  

In the Garden

A row of ‘Fortex’ pole beans sown in the second week of August is yielding a good crop of long, straight beans. I grew them this time on my rebar and reinforcing panel system, instead of the more usual line of bamboo poles.

After the long weekend, I noticed that deer had pruned off New Guinea impatiens and Algerian ivy grown all summer in a container away from the house. Why did they forbear until now? I have no idea.

Seedlings of biennials and short-lived perennials such as giant blue lobelia, rudbeckia, lychnis, and Verbena bonariensis will have emerged by now. Train your eye to spot them when cultivating or weeding to perpetuate these cost-free plants for 2018.

Lift and divide Siberian iris and hosta now. Soils are soft so replanting is easy and watering requirements for the transplants are very low due to dew and seasonal rains.