Wilderness Underfoot: The wildflower stars of autumn

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-112914959530022.jpg’, ”, ‘The hardiest flowers of autumn—Asters are easily spotted from the roadside. The heath aster (white, above) is hard to miss, standing against a backdrop of dried prairie plants. The New England aster (magenta to purple, center) is our largest and showiest. It grows best in moist soils, near marshes and in wet ditches. Short’s aster (blue to violet, bottom) grows in drier woodlands and on slopes. It prefers partial sun.’);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11291496281769.jpg’, ”, ”);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11291496381769.jpg’, ”, ”);

Long after most other wildflowers have turned brown and withered, clusters of asters are still on vivid display

Asters are our most abundant late-season wildflowers. They start their show in August, lasting until hard frosts kill them—often as late as the month of November. Not even the sturdy goldenrod, another late-season flower, can hold out as long.

Asters look like miniature daisies, or little starbursts. They are named after the Latin and Greek word for “star.”

It’s easy to find asters. Just look at any prairie or roadside this month, and you’re likely to see the clusters of the prolific heath asters and multiflora asters. With bright white flowers and green leaves, they stand out brightly against autumn’s brown and yellow prairies. Other colors commonly found in the flowers of asters include rich pinks, blues and purples.

Nearly all of the 250 known wild aster species occur in North America. About 30 species are quite common in Illinois. They fill a variety of ecological niches. Some species prefer moist or soaking wet soils, others thrive in dry, rocky soils. Some do well in the full sunlight of the open prairies, others are better suited for the dappling light of woodlands.

The aster has only gradually caught on as a garden plant in North America. The main reason it has been overlooked here in the past is its weedy appearance. But in England and other parts of Europe, growers have been breeding more compact, garden-friendly varieties. New varieties of domesticated asters have begun to attract gardeners. You won’t find asters offered in cut flower arrangements, however; they tend to wilt rapidly after clipping.

Recent interest in planting native and prairie gardens has also attracted gardeners to the aster. This plant is a wonderful addition to the late-season

prairie garden, adding color until the first hard frosts of the year.

From the Oct. 12-18, 2005, issue

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