This erect, herbaceous perennial of eastern North America blooms for two months in early fall with panicles of bright blue, daisy-like flowers with yellow centers. The bottom of the plant fills out nicely with heart-shaped green leaves, while the upper stems are lined with smaller, lance-like leaves. Asters are the perfect substitute for non-native chrysanthemums, which often are not winter hardy. Sky blue aster grows 2-3' tall and almost as wide in full sun or light shade and a wide range of soils, including dry, rocky, and clay. It spreads by rhizomes to form clumps and also spreads by releasing seeds with white tufts for wind dispersal. Also known as azure aster and blue devils, it provides billows of colorful flowers for fall gardens and serves as a vital food source for many insects. Asters are one of the top keystone perennials in Ohio. Their pollen is vital to the successful overwintering of many insect species, and monarchs rely on the nectar to fuel their southward winter journey. Bumble bee queens are often found on asters as they stock up on energy before hibernating. One way to identify this plant is to notice the phyllaries, or leaf-like structures that form around the base of flowers in the Aster family. In sky blue aster’s case, the phyllaries hug the swollen base of the flower, forming green diamond shapes with purple tips.
An exciting bit of trivia for Ohioans is the origin of the species name. American botanist John L. Riddell described this plant in 1835 as Aster oolentangiensis after finding it near the Olentangy River in Worthington, Ohio. Unfortunately, he misspelled the name of the river. Aster derives from the Greek word astro, meaning “star.” The genus name comes from the Greek words symphysis, meaning “junction,” and trichos, meaning “hair,” probably referring to the variably hairy stems and basal leaves. Ancient Greeks burned aster leaves to ward off snakes and evil spirits, and both ancient Greeks and Romans believed that asters were sacred to the gods. The flowers acquired a tougher reputation in 1918 when Hungarian soldiers used asters on their caps as a revolutionary symbol.
Native habitats include prairies, fields, open woods, woodland margins, and rocky slopes. Use it in native and rock gardens, meadows, prairies, woodland edges, and mixed borders. The spreading rhizomes are good for erosion control. Use the flowers in cut-flower arrangements.
Reaches 24-36” tall and 18-24” wide.
Does best in full or part sun.
Grows in a wide range of soil types and dry to medium moisture. Tolerates drought but not excessive water.
Branched clusters of flowers bloom September-October. The outer ring of 13-20 blue ray florets is ½-1” wide. The rays encircle a central disk with 20-25 tubular, yellow florets that mature to a deep reddish color. The disk florets open in succession from the edge to the center.
Leaves vary considerably in shape. Rough, hairy basal leaves are up to 5” long and have a heart-shaped base attached to a long petiole. Undersides have short, whitish hairs. Smaller upper leaves are often on winged stalks.
Stems are variably hairy and green during growing season.
The Symphyotrichum genus hosts the larvae of 112 species of Lepidoptera in central Ohio, including the pearl crescent, gorgone and silvery checkerspot butterflies, and four specialist moths--aster flowerhead, aster-head phaneta, essex phaneta, and Hoffman's cochlid. Visitors include dozens of moth species, butterflies and skippers, bumble bees, mining bees, leafcutter bees, flower flies, bee flies, and soldier beetles. The seed heads attract goldfinches, chickadees, nuthatches, and other birds in fall and winter. Wild turkeys feed on the seeds and leaves, and deer and rabbits occasionally browse on the leaves, which helps maintain a bushier growth habit.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
Parts of the plant were used to make poultices for pain; tea for diarrhea, fever and respiratory ailments; and tinctures for skin diseases and rashes. Asters were combined with bloodroot to make a laxative. Asters were burned to produce a smoke cloud to revive unconscious people.
Native Americans harvested the roots, which they used in soups. Young leaves were cooked and used as greens.
Both the leaves and the flowers of the aster plant are edible, fresh or dried, and can be used in salads as greens or as a garnish. The roots, leaves, and flowers can be made into a tea or a tincture.
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