Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Nature Bulletin No. 431-A   October 30, 1971
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

One of the charms of our American autumn is the profusion of asters that decorate the landscape from late August until the killing frosts of October or November. Some kinds, last wildflowers of the dying year, are still blooming when even the goldenrods are gone. Some are white; a few are pinkish; others range in color from pale blue to purple. They are very hardy but people who gather armloads of asters are disappointed to find that they close up and lose their beauty almost as soon as picked.

The asters belong to that largest of all plant families, the Composites, which includes such common flowers as goldenrods, daisies, sunflowers, thistles and dandelions. The name aster, from the Latin and Greek word meaning "star", was given them because the flower head has a showy ring of rays or florets -- similar to those of a daisy, sunflower and chicory -- around a yellow center that turns reddish or purplish brown with age. Almost all are perennials. Each tiny seed has a short tuft of fuzz by which it is carried away in the wind.

The asters are found mostly in North America where there are scores of species. They have their greatest variety and abundance in the eastern half of the United States and, of 40 kinds found in the Chicago region, only 10 are uncommon or rare. Some bloom early; some late. Each species prefers a certain kind of habitat: dry wooded hills, open woods, fields and prairies, sandy soils, rich bottomlands, stream banks, swamps, or even bogs. Those growing in shady places usually have broad heart-shaped leaves, whereas those in fields and open spaces have slender or needle-shaped leaves. There is a bewildering array of species but, for you and me, it is of little consequence whether or not we can tell them apart, as far as our enjoyment is concerned.

Except as weedy cover protecting soils from erosion, asters have little practical importance. The Indians apparently used the roots, the bottom leaves, or the flowers of a few kinds for medicines. Some were burned as a smudge to drive away evil spirits, or as hunting charms to attract deer and counterfeit the scent of a gland between the toes of that animal.

The New England Aster, blooming late, is the largest and handsomest of all. It grows in erect clumps, often as tall as your head, in fields and along roadsides but especially in moist ground. It bears loose clusters of flower heads each with 40 to 50 rays of deep blue or purple. The entire plant is pungently aromatic. The strikingly ornamental Smooth Aster has more numerous blue or violet flowers. Its foliage and gracefully bending stems have a bluish green cast. Like the New England aster, it has been cultivated in gardens.

From one end of Illinois to the other, our country roads, pastures and abandoned fields in the uplands are whitened by the Heath Aster, also called Frost Aster. Seldom more than knee-high, it is densely bushy, has stiff narrow leaves, and bears masses of little frosty-white flowers. The Multiflora Aster, which also has masses of small white flowers, is very abundant in the prairies and abandoned fields of this region. We frequently see several acres thickly covered with it.

There are many other familiar kinds, with all sorts of common names, all combining to end the year's seasons of blooming wildflowers with a grand flourish. After frost has come and their seeds have been shed, the remnants of the flower heads are still star-like and can be used to make attractive winter bouquets. Ave Asters !

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