Clean foliage, lovely flowers, easy to grow and maintain. That’s what we look for, isn’t it?
It is, at least for those of us who are challenged by plants that require anything more than minimal care. And customers these days, whether seasoned gardeners who are short on time or neophytes who are intimidated by the whole, y’know, gardening thing, are eager to grow something easy.
Amsonia tabernaemontana (blue star or bluestar) is an excellent plant for all. It’s native to woodlands and plains throughout the Midwest, east to New Jersey and south to Texas and even Florida. It performs well in full sun to part sun/part shade gardens, and is adaptable to a variety of soils but prefers moist, loamy conditions. If the soil is too rich, plants may flop a bit and require staking or pruning, but Amsonia stems can be cut back (by about half) after they flower to promote bushier growth. This is a good practice if the plant is grown in shadier sites. (Although the plants prefer moist sites and often are recommended for use in rain gardens, they’re also reasonably drought tolerant.)
Name: Amsonia tabernaemontana
Common name: Blue star
Hardiness: Zones 3 to 9
Mature height: 2 to 3 feet
Mature spread: 2 to 3 feet
Landscape use: Front to mid-border of a perennial or mixed garden; groundcover in full sun to part shade areas; exceptional when planted in mass in an informal setting Ornamental characteristics: Slender stalks bear medium green, willow-like leaves reaching 2 to 3 inches long and .5 to .75 inches wide; foliage is rather dull—not much sheen— but maintains a clean appearance through fall, when it turns a pleasing yellow to golden yellow; clusters of light blue, star-shaped flowers bloom atop the erect stems in late spring
I met blue star several years ago when I was working with plantsman Roy Diblik on his first book, “Roy Diblik’s Small Perennial Gardens: The Know Maintenance™ Approach.” It’s one of the plants he includes in his selections of “buddy plants,” varieties that are reliable and play well with others. Many short trips to his Northwind Perennial Farm near Burlington, Wisconsin, sold me on nearly all the plants he grows, but blue star stood out for a couple of reasons:
- The flowers are, as the name tells us, blue.
- The flowers are, as the name tells us, star-shaped.
My two weaknesses, neatly packaged in one plant. Toss in ease of care, and I’m sold. I planted three at about mid-garden on the east side of my patio, in soil that is of the typical Midwest construction variety: It once was rich farmland, but dig down about a foot and you’ll discover chunks of concrete, gravel and pieces of brick. No matter; without the benefit of soil amendments, these blue stars established quickly. The second year, they were blooming, and by the third year, the three plants had spread politely to claim about a 5-foot by 5-foot space among their companions.
Blue star is respectful of the elderly hosta in the garden, as well as the few ornamental grasses of [mumble-mumble] provenance. My planting has been invaded a couple of times by a neighbor’s insistent bishop’s weed (an apt common name for the aggressive Aegopodium podagraria ‘Variegatum’), which creeps in now and then and which, though offering a nice contrast in foliage, is just plain rude. There’s no getting rid of it permanently, so pulling as the foliage emerges has served to keep it in check.
Despite the intruder, Amsonia suffers from virtually no insect or disease problems. Even better than that, it’s attractive to butterflies. I’ve yet to encounter bees, but it may be because they’re busy with the nearby Nepeta.
Blue star is versatile, performing well in a variety of conditions in zones 3 to 9, and it’s companionable, blending well with other perennials and shrubs. It requires very little maintenance and remains clean throughout the season, even offering delightful, sunny yellow fall color. But the clusters of flowers, often in subtly varying shades of light blue, are what sold me.
It’s the stars again. They get me every time.