Winter Asters 1

by Carl Strang

Winter botany study allows us to focus on a seldom considered source of beauty, and can pose interesting identification problems. Last week I took on the challenge of identifying Mayslake Forest Preserve’s asters. I feel a little shaky with asters even when they are blooming, so I wasn’t sure how far I would get. In the end, though, I think that I was able to sort out all 6 of the preserve’s common species. Today I’ll feature three of them. The easiest was New England aster.

New England Aster in winter.

New England aster has large flowers, and the heads are larger than those of other common asters in winter as well. The identification is confirmed by the stemless leaves whose bases seem to wrap a little around the stem. Here is New England aster in bloom.

New England aster has the most brightly colored flowers among our common wild asters.

Leaves also ease the identification of Drummond’s aster (a variety of arrowleaf aster). Though many leaves drop off, I found that most if not all plants held onto a few of the distinctive, arrowhead-shaped leaves.

They are dry and curled, but you can see how the narrower petioles of the Drummond’s aster leaves contrast with the expanded leaf blades.

The flowering heads show the plants to be asters, but I didn’t see anything to distinguish them as Drummond’s.

Drummond’s aster seed heads.

Here is Drummond’s aster flowering.

Drummond's aster flowers usually are pale to medium blue.

I’ll conclude this first chapter with heath aster. Heath asters have all tiny, awl-like leaves and tend to have crowded heads.

The dry leaves seemed to hold a distinctive curve, and didn’t have a wilted or shriveled appearance.

In this photo you can get a sense of heath aster leaves in winter.

These characteristics also distinguish the flowering plant.

Heath aster is beautiful in bloom.

Keep in mind that I am focusing on only a few aster species on a single site. There are dozens of kinds of asters in any of our counties, and it’s important to know which ones are on a site before trying to sort them out in winter.

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