Asters and goldenrod: late season native perennials
As autumn approaches, the days grow shorter, evenings grow cooler, acorns fall from the oaks, and the maples, in anticipation of the coming change of season, start to reveal hints of the glorious spectacle of color that lies ahead.
It’s also the time of year when the goldenrod and the asters (also called starworts or frost flowers) present their showy blooms along roadsides and forest edges, in woodland openings, meadows, and old fields, and along stream banks. At a time when most other perennials have finished blooming, their eye-catching flowers are an abundant source of nectar for bees and butterflies, including adult monarchs, setting out on their remarkable flight to overwintering sites in the high-mountain forests of central Mexico. The seeds of both (and the insect larvae that feed on the plants themselves) are a valuable food source for birds, including migratory birds making their way south, and for many small mammals, as well.
Asters’ warm and beautiful shades of blue, white, purple, and occasionally pink, with mostly yellow centers, are among the most attractive autumn perennials found growing wild in North America. Their scientific name, Asteraceae, comes from the Greek word for star, referencing the starburst appearance of those lovely blooms.
The family includes an estimated 180 species, with hundreds more hybrid cultivars ranging in a wide variety of colors. They’re prolific in the wild, across the northeast.
Several of the most popular types of these daisy-like flowers have been grouped into two categories; New England asters (Aster novae-angliae) and New York asters (Aster novi-belgii), sometimes called Michaelmas daisies because they’re in bloom around the time of Michaelmas, the Christian feast day of St. Michael the Archangel. Both are considered native to North America and thrive in a wide range of growing conditions.
Goldenrod is actually a group of plants in the aster family. Other native perennials in the aster family include black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia), coneflower (Echinacea), and sunflower (Helianthus). The goldenrod genus is known by the scientific name Solidago, and includes more than 100 different species, most of which are found only in North America and many of which are essentially identical.
Many people incorrectly associate goldenrod with allergies and hay fever. They mistake goldenrod for ragweed, a relatively inconspicuous plant which blooms at the same time and often in the same location.
Grains of goldenrod pollen are large, relatively heavy, and require the assistance of pollinators to be spread from one plant to another. Ragweed, on the other hand, ejects incalculable numbers of tiny pollen grains into the wind, where they can remain airborne for several days. Most of that pollen will never find its way to another ragweed flower, but will inevitably finds its way to our eyes and our noses, triggering allergic irritation and hay fever.
Mythology and lore
Asters were considered sacred by both the ancient Romans and the ancient Greeks. Both believed that burning aster leaves would drive away evil spirits and ward off negativity.
The Romans associated them with Venus; their goddess of femininity, love, and beauty. The Greeks associated them with Astraea (hence the name, aster), their goddess of innocence and purity.
According to legend, by Zeus’ command, Astraea, the last immortal to live on Earth, reluctantly took her place in the heavens as the constellation Virgo. She looked down upon the Earth and began to cry tears of stardust which, upon falling to Earth, became fields of star-flowers; asters.
In Cherokee legend, there’s a tale of a brutal attack on a village in which everyone was killed except two sisters, who managed to run off and hide. One wore a lavender-blue-fringed dress and the other, a yellow-fringed dress.
A medicine woman found them sleeping in the forest. Able to see into the future and know that the girls would be pursued and slaughtered, the elderly spiritualist covered the sleeping children with leaves and magically transformed one into the lavender-blue aster, and the other into yellow goldenrod.
¯ The Farmer’s Almanac suggests that asters were primarily known as symbols of powerful love. They’re the flower associated with 20th wedding anniversaries.
¯ Asters are September’s birth flower.
¯ The Hungarian Revolution of 1918 is known as the Aster Revolution because the citizens of Budapest and the demobilized soldiers supporting the revolution all wore asters in their caps, as a symbol of their unity.
¯ In France, bouquets of asters are used to memorialize those killed in battle.
¯ Goldenrod is the state flower of both Nebraska (1895) and Kentucky (1923).
¯ Goldenrod was used as a tea replacement after early American colonists decided to boycott tea supplies from England.
¯ In the 1920s, Thomas Edison discovered that Goldenrod plants contained roughly 12% latex; enough latex to produce a usable rubber. He formed a partnership with Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone to manufacture tires for Ford’s Model T, using latex from goldenrod as the raw material.