As October nears, native asters by the numbers are making their annual appearance in meadows, damp thickets, open woods and along country roads and seashores in the Northeast. There are some 150 aster species in North America and most of them have showy flowers that range from white and pale blue to shades of rose and violet, though never yellow. However, wildflower enthusiasts generally agree that all of the others pale when compared with the New England aster, often found towering over a sea of goldenrod.
This aster (the Greek word for "star") grows to a height of 7 feet or more, displaying clusters of flowers comprised of anywhere from 45 to 100 lavender to deep purple rays surrounding large golden-orange disks full of pollen. Even the plant's scientific name is lovely: Aster novae-angliae, which should be easy to translate even if you nearly flunked high-school Latin as I did so many years ago. In our book A Countryman's Flowers, the naturalist Hal Borland mentioned that New England aster is sometimes grown in gardens. "It appreciates such care but never demands it," he wrote. "Even the mowing crews that neaten the roadsides seldom discourage it [and] September finds it eye-catching, spectacular. I sometimes think it was for this that the whole aster tribe evolved."
New England aster, it should be noted, is not confined to its namesake region. The species is found in uplands from Maritime Canada to Maryland and North Carolina and west to Arkansas, Colorado and Saskatchewan. But it is certainly not the only aster worth seeking out. Check out the illustration by my artist friend Manabu Saito on page 279 of Wildflowers of North America, a full-color Golden Field Guide. Or turn to A Field Guide to Wildflowers in the Peterson series. The line drawings of some 40 asters (by Roger himself) have those little arrows and botanical notes that help tell one from another, a far more difficult task than identifying those confusing fall warblers or little brown jobs. Or you can just look and admire and not worry about names.