Monday, October 1, 2012

New England's asters aren't nearly as tasty as their clam chowder

Species name: Symphyotrichum novae-angliae (formerly in the genus Aster)

Common name: New England Aster

Location: Ontario

This species of aster (a common name as well as a Latin name!) is native to just about all areas of North America east of the Rocky Mountains, except in Canada's far north where it is too cold for it to grow. This species, while incredibly common in field sites, has becoming increasingly popular as a garden plant because of its late blooming time (sometimes still having brilliant purple flowers when the first major snowfall hits in November) and easy of care. You literally don't have to do anything to this plant to get it to flower vigorously every year. That's my kind of garden plant! Unfortunately, like any aster that prefers disturbed areas, with no basic pruning maintenance (and digging out new shoots that you don't want) this plant gets a bit out of control (as evidenced by the top photograph). You could also just plant a bunch of other native wildflowers beside each other in close proximity, and let them hold each other up!

Like many other "roadside weeds" in North America, this species was introduced to Europe more than three centuries ago as an ornamental plant. It seems to do much worse there than it does here, which is somewhat unusual for a garden plant. Usually when you introduce a weedy species from a natural habitat into a foreign one, it only gets worse. Thankfully, this plant missed that memo (or forgot to learn how to read somewhere along the way). The Australians haven't been so lucky, since this species tends to get away in gardens there.

Other than the ornamental value (there have been 70 different cultivars created to date, but only 50 of them are used in any great extent commercially), there is no known economic benefit of this plant. I'm sure somewhere along the line it was used as a medicinal plant many centuries ago, but that use has since been lost or forgotten. It is also not known to be edible.