Here in Autumn, another advantage of my lassez-faire approach to mowing my prairie grass lawn this summer is now visible. Despite this summer's record temperatures and drought, colonies of native asters have now made their presence known as the grass begins to brown.
The asters that grow here in the Flint Hills are all fairly short so sometimes you have to look for them carefully, but they often occur in clumps with enough numbers to stand out. There are a number of asters native to my area, so exact identification can be a challenge. I think the prettiest aster in my "yard" is an Aromatic Aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium), a 6-18 inch tall bloomer of bluish-purple that likes to play hide and seek in the taller grass. One of the identifying characteristics of this species is that the yellow disk florets age to reddish tones, evident in the picture at the right. It arises in groups from creeping rhizomes and often is found with Silky Aster (Symphyotrichum sericeum), but can be distinguish from the latter by the lack of silky hairs on the leaves of the Aromatic Aster.
Much more common in the Flint Hills, but a little more boring from a distance, is the Heath Aster, (Symphyotrichum ericoides) a white aster that is the most common native aster in Kansas. It grows a little taller than the Aromatic Aster, from 1 to 3 feet high, and so the white flowers can be seen easier above the native grasses. According to written descriptions, the Heath Aster is very drought tolerant and has roots that descend 3-8 feet down into the prairie soil. Just think about that; eight feet down through chipped rock and clay would indeed be a pretty decent protection against drought. It grows in colonies as depicted below and it is said to accumulate selenium from the soil, so its presence decreases hay quality in cow pastures.
Heath Aster colony
So, in its first year, my "unmowing" has resulted in some nice stands of Black-eyed Susan's and Asters, and the occasional Monarda sp, Asclepius sp, Blue Sage, Goldenrod, and Thistle. Not a fabulous world-shattering display, as a gardener might like, but acceptable, and I hope that some of the mature seed heads take root and spread next year. I picked a great year to try it because the unmowed strips on the hillsides probably helped preserve what little moisture did fall this year, acting as "rain gardens" in my greater yard to slow down and collect runoff. All of that, of course is secondary to the fact that Mrs. ProfessorRoush has not said much about the unmowed patches for awhile, a change that I take for reluctant acceptance of such ecological experimentation carried out by her odd but endearing gardening husband.