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.

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.

Late Summer Prairie Wildflowers

by Carl Strang

The long season of the prairies’ floral displays continues at Mayslake Forest Preserve. In my first year there I am inventorying species and recording first flowering dates for future comparisons. We’ll begin with some goldenrods. The Missouri goldenrod blooms in late July, like the similar early goldenrod of Mayslake’s savanna.

Missouri goldenrod b

August adds the dissimilar grass-leaved goldenrod,

Grass-leaved goldenrod b

and stiff goldenrod,

Stiff goldenrod 1b

both of which grow abundantly at Mayslake.

Three species tower above most of the other prairie plants. One of them, the tall coreopsis, has relatively small, abundant flower heads.

Tall coreopsis 1b

Earlier  we met the compass plant. A close relative is prairie dock.

Prairie dock 3b

A third species in genus Silphium, though not as tall as the others, is rosin weed.

Rosin weed b

Though many of the prairie flowers appearing in this part of the season have yellow blooms, we also see the purple of Missouri ironweed.

Missouri ironweed b

New England aster is just getting under way, and will extend its flowering period into autumn.

New England aster b

The false sunflower does not appear to be as abundant at Mayslake as in some other preserves.

False sunflower 2b

Finally, here are the odd looking flowers of common gaura, a member of the evening primrose family.

Common gaura 2b

All too soon we’ll be entering the autumn chapter of this story.

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