Purple on the Prairie

New England Aster. Photo by Chris Helzer
New England Aster. Photo by Chris Helzer

By Alyssa Nyberg

As the mornings grow chilly, I like to enjoy a warm cup of tea outside, admiring the sea of yellows, browns and tans which covers the prairie this time of year. From somewhere within the folds of the prairie slowly comes a wave of brilliant purple. It is the New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae, formerly Aster novae-angliae), with its flowers of purple and yellow, decorating our prairies from late August through September.
Though named New England aster, this showy plant is native to Newton County. It is actually a fairly common plant in moist prairies, open woodlands, abandoned fields, fencerows and roadsides, preferring moist soils and full sun, but tolerating light shade. Though it colonizes recently disturbed areas, it is also a plant of high quality prairie sites. New England aster occurs across most of the U.S., absent from Idaho, Utah, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, and Florida.
The New England aster grows from three to five feet high and roughly three to four feet wide. Its leaves are lance-shaped, 4 inches long and 1 inch wide and are cordate clasping, which means they have lobes at the base of the leaf which hug the stem. (They hug the stem, I just love that!) The stem and leaves are lightly hairy. Each seed is tiny, 1/16 inch long, and attached to a tuft of fluff which catches the wind and allows the seed to travel to new locations.
Remember back in grade school when we learned about the color wheel in art class? We learned that purple and yellow are complimentary colors. Each New England aster flower is roughly 1.5 inches across and is a perfect complement of color. Forty to fifty outer purple petals surround the bright yellow center disc flowers. The flowers, so pleasing to the eye, are clustered at the end of the branches. There can be up to 50 flowers per plant, making it look like a gorgeous orb of purple yellow, which is very appreciated at a time when much of the surrounding fall prairie is lacking in vibrant color.
As lovely as the New England aster is, it is also a noisy plant! It is a favorite among pollinators, which are attracted to its blooms by the rich nectar and pollen it produces. Bumblebees, honeybees, miner bees, bee flies, butterflies and skippers unknowingly all assist with pollinating the flowers as they travel from plant to plant in search of the nectar and pollen.
This long-lived attractive perennial makes an excellent landscaping plant. Should you decide to purchase an aster from a nursery, please ensure that the plant is not treated with neonicotinoids, a systemic insecticide commonly sprayed on garden and landscaping plants. Unfortunately, plants treated with neonicotinoids will continue to have the toxic insecticide on their tissue for years, which will likely kill the very pollinators you are hoping to help, such as butterflies and bees.
According to the Peterson Field Guide of Medicinal Plants and Herbs, Native Americans used the roots of New England asters to make tea as a cure for fevers and diarrhea. But, I think New England aster is far too attractive a plant to consider digging the roots for tea. Instead, I’ll drink my cup of black tea and watch the rainbow of butterflies flit about the purple and yellow flowers on a fall day. Now that is living!
Bring yourself and your cup of tea out to Kankakee Sands this fall to enjoy New England asters in bloom.

Volunteer Workday at The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands

Want to help? There is a volunteer workday at Kankakee Sands on Saturday, October, 10, 2015, from 9 a.m. to noon CST.
Enjoy the orange and gold colors of the prairie during this workday of collecting seeds and cleaning seeds at the Kankakee Sands Nursery. There will be seed harvesting activities in the beds of the nursery, and seed cleaning activities in the shade of the pole barn. Fun for all, that’s our promise…and cookies too!

No experience necessary.  Fleece and wool clothing is not recommended as it collects seeds, but costumes sure are!  Feel free to bring your lunch and have a picnic on the prairie or hike a trail at Kankakee Sands (in costume!) after the workday.  RSVPs are appreciated. Contact Alyssa Nyberg by email at anyberg@tnc.org or call (219) 866-1706 for more information and to R.S.V.P.  We will begin the morning at the Kankakee Sands Native Plant nursery located at 1492 W 250 N, Morocco, IN, 47963.
The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands of Indiana and Illinois is 10,000 acres of prairie and savanna habitat in Northwest Indiana and Northeast Illinois, open every day of the year for public enjoyment. For more information visit www.nature.org/KankakeeSands or call the office at 219-285-2184.

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