They appear when the dry heat of summer sets in, and many of them continue to dazzle us as winter's chill slowly seeps into the landscape.
While I have chosen a single member of this enormous group as my feature for today, I will introduce many others throughout this final post in the series, since they are all lovely to behold, and provide the last lifeline for pollinators before the winter sleep.
White Heath Aster can be found blooming east of the Rockies, its range extending all of the way from Canada to Texas.
Even though it is very much native, it has a determined growth habit - often holding its own with the most invasive of exotics.
The plants grow from 2-5 feet tall, and have a bit of an arching growth habit. Sometimes they lay over and weave through other plants.
The blooms have 15-20 white rays surrounding a yellow disc that sometimes appears reddish, especially as the flowers begin to fade.
Before we delve into the dazzling world of our native asters, let's clear up a little confusion.
The genus for asters was originally Aster, a Greek word meaning literally, "a star."
Well, that's merely my opinion. The real reason the North American genus was changed was to set it apart from Eurasian species, which also go by the genus Aster. Besides differences in range, botanists identified structural and genetic distinctions between the asters of different continents. Thus, the new genus was born.
Even though Symphyotrichum [looks it up for the 500th time - I swear, I simply cannot remember this one] is now the "official" genus name, it is anything but new. The name was first proposed in 1832.
The derivation of this tongue-twisting word is Greek. Symphy(o) means to "come together," and trich(o) means "hair."
As if that wasn't confusing enough, other North American asters have been further divided into genera with names like Eurybia and Oclemena, but we won't get into that.
For this blog post I am keeping it simple, and they shall all be simply, asters.
The most similar species to the White Heath Aster is the Calico Aster (A. lateriflorus).
One of the earlier bloomers in this genus is the New England Aster (A. novae-angliae).
It has alternate, sessile leaves with clasping bases.
They can be found across most of the US, preferring moist meadows and thickets.
This is also one of the only aster species mentioned for its medicinal value.
The Cherokee brewed a tea to treat fevers, used the pounded plant as a poultice to ease pain and drank a root tea to treat diarrhea.
|White Wood Asters blooming along the Appalachian trail at Carver's Gap.|
It blooms between July and October.
|Heartleaf Asters blooming at Cummins Falls|
The yellow centers turn reddish as they age, and this late bloomer can be seen growing in loamy, rocky soil throughout the eastern United States.
|Aromatic Asters blooming on the lakeside bluffs|
In our neck of the woods, it is Short's Aster (A. shorti) that is the last man standing, so to speak.
Once their flowers fade, I know for certain that the growing season has come to a close.
Very soon, all of the plants we have come to know and love over the season will bow their heads in submission to the coming winter. Frost and snow will sparkle on their skeletons, and creatures of all shapes and sizes will take shelter below them or even inside them to wait out the winter.
But if there's one thing I've learned in all my years of exploring the great outdoors, it's that nature is never static.
Below the soil, the dormant plants are still very much alive, and are waiting for the longer days and warming temperatures to tell them to rise in glory once again.
Even so, it is with great eagerness that we will greet the coming of spring in a few, short months (or long ones, depending on how far North you may be). The first flowers will push their way towards the sunshine, offering the first nectar for thankful pollinators, and filling our hearts with joy.
|... and expanding the little man's horizons, too|
My hope is that you, too have enjoyed taking this journey with me. I hope I have inspired you to take a closer look in your own backyard, getting to know the wild plants that share your space. I hope I have given you the tools and confidence to identify the plants around you, and ignited a spark that will expand into a lifetime of learning.
Click here to read about last week's wildflower, White Frostweed
Wildflowers of Tennessee, the Ohio Valley and the Southern Appalachians - Dennis Horn & Tavia Cathcart
Wildflowers of Tennessee - Jack B. Carman
Cherokee Plants and Their Uses - a 400 Year History - Paul B. Hamel and Mary U. Chiltoskey
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