Summit Outside: Aster: a hardy plant for the High Country
September 8, 2012
The mornings are getting colder and there has been frost on the docks and boats at sunrise. The willows and aspen are turning gold, and purple asters seem to be still blooming in abundance here in Summit County.
There are several species of wild aster seen in our alpine environment including the Rocky Mountain aster, and the alpine or arctic aster.
Rocky Mountain aster grows in open forests and grasslands from the mid- to high-elevation mountains. The Rocky Mountain aster’s flower-heads bear 13 or more narrow rays.
The scientific name is “Ionactis stenomeres.” Ionactis is derived from the Greek, and means “violet rays.” The word stenomeres, from the Greek, means “narrow-parts,” probably referring to its narrow, similar-sized leaves that ascend the stem.
The alpine aster is a subalpine to alpine species that grows in clusters in open spaces and rocky sites. This plant can be distinguished by a crown of linear gray-green leaves at the base. The stem and purple-tinged bracts are covered with fine hair. Alpine aster grows in large clumps on dry ground, usually in the company of sagebrush, as high as the subalpine zone.
The aster can be found in a variety of colors – white, red, pink, purple, lavender and blue, with mostly yellow centers.
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Asters get their names from the ancient Greek word meaning “star” (referring to the shape of the flower head) and have long been considered an enchanted flower. Asters are also known as starworts, Michaelmas daisies or frost flowers.
Flowers in the aster family are found mostly in North America, with a few species extending into South America, and some throughout Europe and Asia. There are over 600 species of asters, of both annual and perennial varieties ranging is size from less than a foot tall, to two feet tall or more.
If you look through some flower guides, the names and species identifications can get very confusing. Many are distinguished by their leaf patterns and shapes. They are mostly coarse-growing, leafy-stemmed and occasionally woody-stemmed at the base.
The aster family is the largest family of flowering plants. Members of this family have one common characteristic: each bloom is made up of many tiny flowers; actually a combination of approximately 300 small (usually yellow) flowers surrounded by colorful petals, mostly purple.
Those in the center of the flower head are “disk flowers,” and those on the edge, each having a single strap-like petal are called “ray flowers.” Ray flowers may occupy the entire flower head. Some species have only disk flowers.
It is not always easy to recognize members of the aster family, but they include: sunflowers, zinnias, chrysanthemums, daisies, asters, ragweed, knapweed, burdock, dandelion, lettuce and artichoke. Some are garden ornamentals, others are obviously edible, and others are troublesome weeds. Food oils are obtained from sunflowers and safflowers.
Aster flowers are popular in many gardens due to their attractive and colorful blossoms and ability to grow in all hardiness zones. Aster flowers provide a beautiful addition to a fall flower garden. When so many other flowers end their growing season, asters continue to thrive and provide brilliant color and scent to an otherwise sad landscape.
Asters are mostly resistant to diseases and insects, but they can be affected by powdery mildew. If disease or insect problems occur, they can be treated with fungicide and organic or chemical insect repellents. Some members of the asters family can survive a drought; other asters can survive cold temperatures.
These perennials depend on insects for pollination and the seeds of many asters are spread all by the wind. Aster species are used as food plants by the larvae of a number of butterfly species. They are also eaten by deer.
Aster flowers have had an interesting history and folk lore. The French would place cuttings of the flower on the graves of soldiers as a tribute to their bravery and valor, or it was used as a symbol to represent a reversal of the outcome of their battles. These flowers were smoked in ancient times, as it was thought that the smoke-smelling perfume would ward off wicked serpents. It was believed that the fragrance of their burning leaves could repel evil spirits.
Asters have been associated with human emotions. The aster flower symbolizes patience, love, daintiness and good luck. Asters placed in a bouquet with complementing flowers to be given as a gift can be representative of admiration and love. To present a single or dried aster flower to a friend or lover was intended as a love charm, as asters were thought to hold the mystic power of drawing forth affection. On the other hand, some legends have it that giving Asters means: “I am not sure if you have been faithful.”
The plants may also be used for their medicinal properties. Certain varieties of the flower are said to help with migraines, colds and headaches. While others are used to aid in treating the pain of sciatica and muscle spasms. Asters are still used in Chinese medicine. The aster tartaricus is the variety of asters used in Chinese medicine. Its root is used in the treatment of coughs.
Aster is the September birth flower. The aster is considered the other classic autumn flower besides the chrysanthemum.
Dr. Joanne Stolen is retired from teaching microbiology at Rutgers University.