Asters! Aargh!

by Carl Strang

Recently I tackled the identification of winter asters at Mayslake Forest Preserve. As I mentioned in the last of those two posts, I had some reservations about my conclusions. Fortunately my good friend, Indiana botanist Scott Namestnik, sent me a back-channel e-mail with some helpful comments about my admittedly shakiest ID’s. Thanks to the combination of a healing calf muscle and melting snow, I was able to get back to all the plants in question yesterday. I grabbed some chunks of plants and took them back to the office for close, bleeding-eyeballs study. (That image comes from Tom Brown, such language being one of his ways of passionately encouraging his students to push the envelope in tracking and other natural history studies). I conclude that the aster I called “hairy aster” in fact is another New England aster.

Not a hairy aster after all, this photo in fact showed a New England aster as Scott suspected. When I looked at the lower leaves I saw what I missed before, the characteristic wrap-around ears at the bases of the stalkless leaves.

The other species in question is the one I called panicled aster, the most abundant species on the preserve. I studied pieces of 8 or so different plants, and found that despite their superficial similarity there is enough variation to suggest they fall into at least two different species. Here is the photo I showed in the recent post.

This one remains puzzling.

Some of these asters are hairier than others. They also show a range of variation in the hyaline (translucent) edges of their phyllaries (flower head bracts). Though I would say that in none of them are the phyllary tips truly hyaline, as those of hairy asters should be, that may be a judgment call I am missing due to lack of experience. On the other hand, it is true that the hairier ones have more extensive hyaline edges to their phyllaries, and those edges come closer to the tips. Therefore I suspect that some may in fact be hairy asters. Others may be panicled asters. Still other species may be involved. This problem will have to wait until the next flowering season.

So, I am coming out of this experience feeling I got two-thirds of the species right, not bad for such a difficult group. More importantly, I know more than I did coming in.



  1. February 17, 2011 at 7:32 am


    You are miles ahead of most who don’t even try to ID these things in the winter (or summer, for that matter!). Nice work! Next are vegetative Carex!!


    • natureinquiries said,

      February 17, 2011 at 9:06 pm

      Ha, ha. Actually, Scott, I was planning to take on the grasses, sedges, rushes etc. at Mayslake last year, but other priorities put that on the back burner. Maybe this year…

  2. February 18, 2011 at 1:09 pm

    Good luck! You’ve got plenty of botanical expertise to lean on in Chicago, but if you need help with any identifications, let me know.

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