Asters are some of our most splendid wildflowers, and they don’t really start flowering until September. So, while our spring and summer wildflowers have now passed, we are still lucky enough to have the landscape painted with color in the fall. But that’s the only easy thing about asters.
I did a quick survey through some of the wildflower guides in my personal library and found significant disagreement as to how many species of asters there actually are.
My Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide listed 43 species, my Audubon Society Field Guide to Eastern Wildflowers listed 21 and my Peterson Field Guide to Wildflowers of Northeastern/Northcentral North America listed 44. When I consulted the great tome that is the Illustrated Flora of the Northern United States and Canada, I found 75 species listed under 123 different common names.
Despite all of this confusion, there is one constant when it comes to asters — they are beautiful. So don’t let a little confusion prevent you from enjoying these wonderful additions to the landscape of late summer and early fall. To help ease you pain just a little, I thought I would introduce you to a couple of the easier species to know.
My personal favorite is the New England aster (Aster novae-angliae). Perched atop stems that can grow 2 to 5 feet in height, the flowers of the New England aster can be up to 2 inches in diameter (about as big as any aster flowers ever get.) Each flower is composed of 40 to 50 rays that circle the center of the flower in a flat plane.
This is the standard design for aster flowers, but what sets the New England aster apart from the others is the color. Whereas most of the colored asters are some shade of pale blue, New England asters are a deep, rich, true purple. This color, combined with the golden yellow of the central disc, is stunning.
These flowers are blooming right now and can easily be observed from your car. Just take the time to look for them and you will be surprised by how many you see.
New York entry
Next comes the New York aster (Aster novi-belgii). The flowers of the New York aster are similar in size and shape to those of the New England, but they are a pale, bluish lavender. In addition, there are generally more flowers on an individual New York aster plant, and they tend to be spread around more than those of the New England, which occur mostly at the tops of the plant stems.
Both species grow in similar areas. One of my books lists the habitat of New England asters as wet thickets, meadows and swamps, whereas the New York aster prefers shores, damp thickets and meadows. What is the difference between a wet thicket and a damp thicket? Please ask someone else.
Mornings to enjoy
My suggestion in this: Get yourself outside and enjoy the gorgeous mornings that late September and early October are going to provide for us. True, it can be hard to get up at dawn, but dawn is coming later and later each morning. Bring a cup of something warm to sip on, find yourself a quiet country road and go for a walk.
If you like a challenge, get yourself a field guide to flowers and try to identify any asters you see. Some will be easy and others will be tricky, but all of them are well worth seeing.
Bill Danielson is a professional nature photographer and author living in Altamont. Contact him at www.speakingofnature.com.