Have you noticed the profusion of species of the aster family that are blooming now? Of course there have been members of the aster family flowering throughout the summer, but it seems that August and September is when their flowers are most conspicuous on the landscape: goldenrods, sunflowers, gumweed, and of course the fall asters. Not only are they providing lots of color to the landscape, mainly yellows and blues, but they are also providing us with a wealth of information. They’re telling us that the harvest has begun, summer is about shot, school will start soon, and of course fall is waiting in the wings.

Some botanists rank the aster family as the largest family of flowering plants on the planet with around 1500 genera and somewhere in the neighborhood of 23,000 species. Others rank the family second only to the orchid family. Either way, it is the largest plant family in the United States and Canada. Here in North Dakota I suspect the asters may even outnumber the grasses.

Asters are important components of most native plant communities of our state and region. Just think of it, in addition to the goldenrods, sunflowers, and asters so prominent right now, the group also includes yarrow, dandelion, coneflowers, and the sages and thistles.

This family even has important domesticated species used for food and spice, as well as our flower gardens. They include sunflowers, safflower, artichokes, Jerusalem artichokes, endive, lettuce, tarragon, marigolds, chrysanthemums, dahlia, and zinnias. Even some of our native asters such as yarrow and purple coneflower can now be found in most garden catalogs.

It is interesting to note that absinthe wormwood (Artemisia absinthium), an introduced noxious weed here in North Dakota, is the same species that is used to make absinthe or pernod. Tarragon is made from silky wormwood or Artemisia dracunculus which can be found on upland prairies across the state. And of course, Echinacea has recently become familiar to most of us for its attributed medicinal values.

So take some time to enjoy the Aster family show. Then give a little consideration to how important this family is to our native plant communities as well as their human utility.

Chuck Lura

Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.

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