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January 2007: Featured Plant
Symphyotrichum pilosum var. pilosum: Hairy White Oldfield American-aster

Symphyotrichium pilosum var. pilosum: Hairy White Oldfield American-aster
Symphyotrichium pilosum var. pilosum: Hairy White Oldfield American-aster

Just when I thought that finally all of the Asteraceae (and virtually everyone else) had flowered and gone to seed, I found this perennial plant on the top and bottom margins of a small granite outcrop in early December. Most individuals were just starting to flower and they were clearly different from the many other late American-asters that were all past flowering. This one was different in leaf size and shape and especially in an upright habit with little branching. Most had pure white ray petals with yellow disc flowers aging to purple-red, though some individuals had just a hint of blue in their ray flowers. And the plant was obviously hairy. Actually, the entire plant was pilose, to use the appropriate term for having dense, long, spreading, straight, soft hairs.

Another new Aster, just when I thought I was finished with identifying or ignoring until next year everything except the late season grasses, sedges, and rushes. But it was easy to key and confirm it as Symphyotrichum pilosum var. pilosum, Hairy White Oldfield American-aster, known as Aster pilosus var. pilosus before it joined the mass emigration of all the American taxa out of the genus Aster. See Weakley's (2004) explanation (as the original pdf or an html transcript) of why that happened when Aster was again recognized as solely an Old-World genus. Symphyotrichum, American-aster, received most of the refugees. Recently I was reminded by reading the 2005 Index on Niches: The Blog that I had identified this plant, one year earlier, at a dry wasteland site. Complete with stereo images, made by Wayne, of what caught my eye then as well as this year; an American-aster in flower in late December.

I think it unusual in its handsome habit, its very late flowering, and tendency of its foliage to turn a lovely red while still in flower. The two images above were taken on the same date late in December; the variation in color occurs across plants in all light and moisture conditions, but the red is more frequent in senescent plants, as is true in many other taxa. Its common names include 'Frostweed Aster' and 'Frost Aster', which I took to refer to its late flowering and perhaps its color. But no, several claim that the names derive from the frosted appearance that the hairs give to the plant, especially when back-lit. True observation, but that a common name it need not make.

It is native east of the Rockies and is found in average to wet soils in part shade to full sun. Use it to extend the life of your American-aster garden and in damp or wet spots still waiting for those sedges and rushes.

Images by Glenn Galau ©