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Weekly “What is it?”: Stokes’ Aster

A white-blooming variety of Stokes’ aster shortly after being planted on the Escambia County green roof. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

I first became acquainted with the lovely Stokes’ aster (Stokesia laevis) plant when our horticulture agent, Beth, suggested it for a project more than 10 years ago. We were asked to help come up with a landscape design for the green roof atop the Escambia County Central Office Complex. I was enthusiastic about working on such an innovative project, but the catch was coming up with plants suited for full sun, limited irrigation, and only 6-8” of highly engineered soil. The plants needed to be able to survive with minimal care in drought conditions (but more often, endless rain), through high winds atop a building, and temperature ranges from below freezing to 100+ degrees. We ended up selecting a lot of native dune plants, as they thrive in sandy, sunny soil. But the Stokes’ aster was a surprise choice for me. Ever since, I have admired this durable, eye-catching native wildflower.

A butterfly (far right in photo) has found an excellent source of nectar in this mass planting of Stokes’ aster along a border of the Escambia Extension demonstration garden. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

While not necessarily considered a wetland species, it typically thrives in slightly acidic freshwater wetland habitats. The perennial evergreen is also a native to open meadows and pine flatwoods, although in a home garden it does fine in drier soils. Stokes’ aster has a large (up to 4” wide), summer-long blooming purple flower that attracts butterflies and bees. Newer cultivars of the flower in blue, pink, yellow, white, along with one called “Color Wheel” that changes color throughout the day, are also available at some nurseries. Stokes’ aster can reproduce and spread relatively easy, so those planting it in a garden will sometimes divide thick patches and plant them elsewhere. It is considered a “deer-resistant” plant, which may be important for those of you living near forested areas who receive woodland visitors from time to time.

A side note on grammar and history: the plant name is written with the possessive Stokes’ and not Stoke’s aster, as it was named for botanist and physician Jonathan Stokes. Dr. Stokes lived in England from 1755-1831 and was a member of the Lunar Society, a collection of bright inventors and intellectuals often credited with kicking off the Industrial Revolution.  He is also remembered for his work in using the foxglove plant (Digitalis spp.) to treat atrial fibrillation and heart failure, a compound still used in heart medications today.