Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Adirondack Wildflowers: The Asters

Adirondack AsterAs the days become shorter and the nights cooler, there is a change in the population status and activity level of the numerous bugs that reside in the Adirondacks. While many invertebrates begin to die en masse in the final weeks of summer, the numbers of others increase at this time of year. Colonies of yellow jackets, bees and some wasps reach their peak during the harvest season as these nectar consuming creatures concentrate their foraging efforts on the crop of late blooming wildflowers.

At the top of the list of plants that support various species of flies, moths, bees, hornets and butterflies from Labor Day well past the equinox are the asters, a large and diverse collection of wildflowers as much a part of late summer and early autumn as ripening apples, the sound of crickets and developing flocks of birds.

The asters, also called the frost flowers or starworts, form a large group of herbaceous plants that belong to the composite family, known to some as the sunflower or daisy family. Like other members of this category, the asters produce many tiny individual tubular flowers clustered together on a common flowering disk surrounded by a row of colorful rays or petals. Unlike a daisy, or black-eyed Susan, which produces only one flowering head on a stalk, the asters often have a dozen or more small composite flowers near the end of numerous shoots at the top of a plant. The compact feature of aster flowers and their relatively small size, which is about an inch in diameter, gives these reproductive structures a star-like appearance. Because of this, asters were named after Asteria, a Greek mythological character associated with stars. While many species of asters have petals that are blue, violet or purple, some species are characterized by white petals. The central flowering disk tends to be a yellowish color.

Asters, like many other wildflowers, thrive in open areas where they are exposed to the direct rays of the sun for much of the day. In the Adirondacks, asters often flourish in unmowed areas along the side of roads, in forest clearings, beneath electrical transmission lines, and in any other location where the overhead canopy has been removed, permitting the sun to strike the ground.

In its efforts to capture as much sunlight as possible, many species of asters can grow as high as those plants that surround them. In fields containing goldenrod and ragweed, asters can attain a height of more than four feet.

Wading through a patch of asters can be unsettling on a warm, sunny day when insects are active, as these cold-hardy plants attract numerous bugs late in the growing season. Along with providing splashes of color to a field or forest edge, aster flowers also produce pollen and nectar useful as food at a time when other sources of floral material has disappeared. By providing a queen bee with pollen into September, or even early October, the asters can keep this fertile head of a hive in an egg laying state well past the equinox. This allows the continued production of worker bees late into season, which increases the chances that enough bees will survive the winter and quickly return the hive to a productive colony in spring.

The nectar produced by the tiny aster flowers is high in sugars and is a valuable food item for many bugs. The honey bee is able to convert aster nectar into a light, amber honey that is said by honey experts to have a more appealing taste than the dark-colored honey produced from the nectar of goldenrod. While numerous species of butterflies and moths rely on asters for nectar, it is the monarch butterfly that brings the asters to the attention of naturalists during their early autumn migration south. In order to fly long distances, this delicate creature must periodically ingest highly caloric fluids, even after a frost has destroyed the production of nectar in most flowers. By frequently stopping on patches of asters which are tolerant of early season frosts, and extracting sips of nectar with its long, straw-like tongue, this orange and black insect is able to acquire enough nutrients to reach another patch of asters further south. While much attention concerning the monarch centers on milkweed, it is the asters that become critical to the success of the epic journey undertaken by this insect.

At a time when chrysanthemums are giving homes and flower gardens an attractive dash of color, it is the asters that are doing the same in our wild, open places. And along with adding color to the landscape, these plants also benefit numerous creatures here in the Adirondacks.

Photo of an Adirondack Aster by Ellen Rathbone.

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Tom Kalinowski is an avid outdoor enthusiast who taught field biology and ecology at Saranac Lake High School for 33 years. He has written numerous articles on natural history for Adirondack Life, The Conservationist, and Adirondack Explorer magazines and a weekly nature column for the Lake Placid News. In addition, Tom’s books, An Adirondack Almanac, and his most recent work entitled Adirondack Nature Notes, focuses on various events that occur among the region’s flora and fauna during very specific times of the calendar year. He also spends time photographing wildlife. Tom’s pictures have appeared in various publications across the New York State.

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