Today’s featured plant is Heath Aster, Aster ericoides.
Heath aster is also known as White Aster, Awl-aster, Subulate-bracted Aster, Hairy Aster, Soft Aster, Squarrose White Aster, White Prairie Aster, Heath White Aster, Many-flowered Aster, and Tufted White Prairie Aster.
DePauw.edu shares, “Heath aster is also known as farewell-to-summer and goodbye-meadow, first because it ushers in the fall and second because it tends to take over a field.” Given how it has spread in our wild prairie area, I would believe this.
Range and Identification of Heath Aster
White heath aster is native to the United States. It occurs from Maine to southern Saskatchewan, south to Virginia, Texas, northern Mexico and southeast Arizona. (see map). It's a prairie plant, preferring full sun and dry conditions.
This year with the drought, ours has really taken off. It can be found in many of the usual “weed” areas – roadsides, meadows, along railroad tracks, in gravel pits and quarries. It copes will with both established prairies and disturbed areas.
Heath aster plants grow from 1-3 feet tall. Leaves are attached in an alternating pattern up the stem, 3″ long and ¼” across toward the base of the plant, becoming less than 1″ long and 1/8″ across near the flowering stems. The plant is a perennial. (See Illinois Wildflowers)
Lower leaves die off as the plant matures, and the stems turn from green to brown. The plant is just a little bit fuzzy, not outright hairy. If you look in detail at any of the photos with leaves, you can see this a little better. The roots are rhizomes, so they tend to spread in clumps, but the seeds are also carried on the wind.
Heath aster blooms from August until hard frost, which is great because they provide nectar when many other plants have already finished blooming. Our meadows are humming.
A single plant can produce over 100 flowers, which are clustered near the top of the plant. They have a compound flower, like the ox-eye daisy, made up of tiny florets, and measuring under 1/2 inch across (you can use my hand for a rough scale). There are 8-20 rays (petals) surrounding a center disk that turns from yellow to brown as the flower matures.
Once the flowers have faded, the seed heads get tufts of white hairs, which allow them to be spread on the wind (as mentioned above).
Heath Aster as Animal Habitat
The abundant flowers of health aster are attractive to many species of butterflies, bees and other pollinators, even though they don't have much of a scent. Illinois Wildflowers lists the faunal associations of heath aster:
A wide variety of insects are attracted to the flowers, including long-tongued bees, short-tongued bees, wasps, flies, butterflies, skippers, moths, beetles, and plant bugs. Bee visitors include honeybees, bumblebees, cuckoo bees, little carpenter bees, leaf-cutting bees, Halictid bees, plasterer bees, and Andrenid bees. Wasp visitors include thread-waisted wasps, bee wolves, spider wasps, sand wasps, paper wasps, Ichneumonid wasps, and Braconid wasps.
Among the flies, are such visitors as bee flies, Syrphid flies, thick-headed flies, Tachinid flies, Muscid flies, and others. Various insects suck juices from the plant, including aphids, lace bugs, and plant bugs. The caterpillars of the butterfly Chlosyne nycteis (Silvery Checkerspot) feed on the foliage or flowers, as does the caterpillars of many moth species (see Moth Table). Wild Turkeys nibble on the seeds and foliage to a limited extent. Mammalian herbivores, including the White-Tailed Deer, Cottontail Rabbit, and various kinds of livestock, also feed on the tender growth of young plants occasionally, but are less likely to bother mature plants later in the year.
Medicinal Uses of Heath Aster
The University of Montana – Missoula states: “The Navajo used this aster to make teas and lotions used for curing snake bites. Other groups used these asters in steam lodges, laying branches on the hot rocks to create herbal steam.”
GardenGuides.com states: “Native Americans used white heath aster in sweat baths. Flowering plants served as binding to the structure of the sweat lodge and were added to hot rocks to produce herbal steam. White heath aster was also used medicinally to revive unconscious patients.”
No dosage recommendations were readily available.
As always, any medical information is for informational purposes only. Always exercise caution when using any wild plants and make sure you have positively identified the plant.
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