Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche: Asters

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by Ranger Steve Mueller (8/13/1950 – 6/16/2022)

Wonderous, extravagant, elegant, gorgeous, attractive, dazzling, splendid, magnificent, enjoyable, and pleasant are beauty expressions captivating our attention for the New England and Frost Asters. Many asters populate the countryside but these two dominate the season.

The deep purple ray flowers of New England Asters with yellow disk flowers hold our attention better than most fall flowers except perhaps the white Frost Aster. It is not the white color that is responsible for Frost Aster’s name. It flowers in mass and makes fields glow frost white. They continue to flower after early frosts and that resulted in its name. Some other flower blooms linger into fall, but few equal these two asters.

Goldenrods brightened fields like luminous lamps through August, but most have gone to seed and turned brown by the end of September. When October arrives, the purple and white asters flourish where they serve honeybees, bumble bees, flower flies, beetles, and a host of other insects including Monarch butterflies. The nectar helps sustain migrating Monarchs on their long journey to Mexico.

Asters have two types of flowers. At the center of the flowerhead are disk flowers that have both male and female parts. The male stamen flowers clustered on the central disk mature before the pistils. Pollen released from disk flowers is picked up on the bodies of visiting insects and carried to other asters.

When an insect walks to the center of the flower, it picks up pollen from the disk flowers that it carries to another flower. Because disk flowers have female and male parts that mature at different times, it prevents pollen released from anthers from self-fertilizing the same plant where female flower parts mature later. Delayed development of female pistils helps avoid inbreeding.

Colorful showy ray flowers look like petals, but each is an individual flower projecting outward from a central disk with only the female pistil and no male parts. When an insect is attracted to the petal-like ray flowers, it lands, and pollen rubs off on the pistil. The pollen from different plants fertilizes ray flowers that produce seeds creating genetic diversity.

Visiting insects are not aware of their role in plant fertilization and seed productions. They gather food for themselves, but they are essential in aiding plants in producing future generations. We are mostly unaware of the nature niche adaptations that maintain life of insects, plants, and even us. For us the adjectives mentioned at the beginning of the article pique our interest in nature.

Taking time to enjoy the wonder found in fields makes life worth living and brings contentment. New England Asters have been transplanted to Ody Brook gardens.

Thousands of Frost Aster flowers go unnoticed by people not tuned into the world where we live. It is easy to walk by and not notice. Walk with eyes and minds open to surroundings. Notice that few asters grow in shaded woods. Most asters are early-stage succession species adapted to open sunny areas.

There are exceptions. In the woods you will find large-leaved asters. Few of these plants flower because it is difficult to gather enough sun energy to support flowers. Like their name indicates, they have large leaves that help gather energy. Field asters have small leaves that efficiently gather sunlight energy. The smaller leaves conserve water and prevent desiccation. Look closely and notice “hairy” leaves that help maintain high humidity near the leaf surface. It reduces evaporation.

Frost and New England Asters are two captivating fall wildflowers. Careful observation will reveal many aster species that enhance seasonal enjoyment.