Asters

 

(This 967th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on October 4, 2009.)

 

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New England Asters with Goldenrod and Teasels

 

This time of year is tough on those malcontents who derive perverse pleasure from criticizing Western New York. "The fall colors are better in New England," one of those critics once told me. I have visited New England in the fall and I promise you, as I did him, that their autumn foliage is no more attractive, that it could not be better.

Indeed, I find less variety in the forests of the Adirondacks, New England and northeastern Canada. Their trees are more uniformly maple and aspens; ours include a range of other species. In particular we have the oaks that are yet to turn this season. To me the subtle colors of oak leaves with their burnished shades of orange and purple are even more attractive than those bright primary colors: the reds and yellows of the maples and the yellows of the aspens and tamaracks. And we have an admixture of scarlet sumacs as well.

That argument aside, this is a beautiful time of year here. A walk through a Buffalo park or a drive into the countryside in any direction provides enough beauty to lift onešs soul. So much in fact, that it is easy to miss some of our loveliest flowers, the late blooming blue and purple flowers of autumn.

There are dozens of these blue and purple wildflowers to be found amid the fallen leaves and the tan dying grasses. You can easily pick them out from the other late bloomers. Along roadsides: dayflowers, purple coneflowers and knapweed, a few lingering thistles, teasels, burdock and chicory. At pond edges: pickerelweed. In the woods: mistflower and water mint.

But the blues and purples that most define autumn are those of the asters, the flowers of frost.

It is easy to identify an aster. It is simply an autumn daisy. The yellow "she loves me, she loves me not" rays of the midsummer daisies, sunflowers and black-eyed Susans are replaced by blue or purple; the brown "eye" by yellow. Well, not quite, because asters occasionally come in other colors too, including white and pink.

There are about 250 species of aster to be found in North America. A 2006 article by Ed Fuchs in the Niagara Frontier Botanical Society's journal Clintonia lists six genera and 31 species to be found here in western New York. This represents a breakdown of the single 19th century genus, Aster, that has been determined by modern DNA studies.

 With a good wildflower book like Peterson and McKenny or Newcomb it is not always simple but still possible to differentiate the local species. They are, for example, much easier to identify than those of their fall neighbors, the goldenrods, with their many hybrids. Often the aster names help: heart-leaved, arrow-leaved, smooth, crooked-stemmed, purple-stemmed, azure, and bog.

Although its name doesnšt describe it, the easiest to identify and one of the commonest asters of this area is the New England aster. Its flower rays are a deeper and richer purple than any of the others. If you need confirmation, its three to six foot, straight, and hairy stems are crowded with narrow leaves.

Found along roadsides and across meadows, all of these asters are perennials, second-growth plants that have replaced less viable annuals but will, if the succession continues, give way in time to taller shrubs and trees.

Why do asters bloom late? Clearly there are advantages. Their hardy competitors, even goldenrods and ragweed, are dying back. This gives the asters access not only to the sunlight they need to drive photosynthesis, but also to insects, whose pollination assures the asteršs reproductive success.

I confirmed this insect attendance when I once paused to rest in a patch of crooked-stemmed asters, a pale violet variety. In the few moments I sat there, I watched honeybees, a bumblebee, a wasp, and two species of butterfly busily probing the blossoms for nectar.

These lovely flowers will stay around until the killing frosts of November. Then they will supply seeds for tree sparrows, goldfinches, wild turkeys and chipmunks.

As you take advantage of our breath-taking fall scenery, donšt miss this exceptional wildflower bonus: the asters.-- Gerry Rising