In Praise of Late-Season Asters
“I end not far from my going forth
By picking the faded blue
Of the last remaining aster flower
To carry again to you.”
--Robert Frost: A Late Walk
It is mid-October and this pollinator patch is furious with sound and movement. Countless honeybees, singular, sailing monarchs, and six different native bee species all forage in this three-meter circle with the urgent appetite of late season scarcity. The hum of wings, the scratching of plant stems and flutter of leaves from the steady wind that passes through this valley create a symphony of abundance - heartening in a time of concern about pollinator and native plant population decline. It is easy to lose heart and see a landscape devoid of the native diversity once typical of this bioregion. Indeed, as the late summer fades, nectar plants diminish quite rapidly.
As the Fall colors ripen, however, one type of plant distinguishes itself, providing the grand finale of the Autumnal nectar flow. The aster. Steadfast in the increasing cold and wind, embellishing the darkening roadsides, tall and lanky or short and bushy, their many shades and textures speak of a well-defined niche trajectory. No other flowers compete for this final show.
All summer an array of plants have done their part to sustain pollinators. Here in the Northeast, the celebrated monarch has drunk deeply from many blooms and lay eggs on the various native species of milkweed – the only plant that can sustain their young. In the late season, however, it is the asters that are most critical to the next stage in their life cycle - their migration south. Monarchs sip this high calorie nectar from patch to patch as they travel on their long journey to Mexico. Every patch of high calorie nectar plants gets them further along. As they rest between feeds, it is easy to see how important these small high resource patches are to their survival. All it takes to create these life sustaining patches is a bit of green space and a few of the right species – most anyone can contribute to the connectivity of a landscape in this way.
I am sitting quietly, my camera and phenology notebook at the ready, observing a stand of New England Aster. I do this for two reasons. One is my commitment to the national and regional phenology monitoring networks I am a part of. The other is my commitment to myself - my own practice, my solace. My senses range freely and I follow my noticing.
New England Aster is vibrant purple, a striking contrast to the oranges, reds and golds of the changing foliage in my periphery. More than 35 species of asters adorn the many habitats of New York, graced with names that render their color or texture: purple stemmed aster, heath aster, smooth aster, calico aster, sky-blue aster, and white wood aster, to name a few. While harder to remember (and pronounce), the Latin names often can provide another layer of descriptive or sensory experience of the plants. The genus name of most of these asters, Symphyotrichum, means union (Symphyo) of bristles (trichum) referring to the characteristic hairs on the stems.
The Aster family or Daisy family as some call it, (Asteraceae), all have “composite” flowers. What appear to be the petals of the one flower are actually each individual “ray” flowers. And remarkably, the center of what appears to be one flower is actually made up of hundreds of small “disc” flowers. It is an astonishing experience to take a hand lens to the center of the flower and see the hundreds of little tubular flowers materialize. When an insect is feeding, they drink from each disc flower as they hover. The disc flowers replenish their high-sugar nectar daily – making most of them “high resource” pollinator plants. The late season asters are key to creating pollinator patches with extended seasonal value.
These late season asters also provided the queen bees of our hives enough pollen to lay eggs past the equinox, which grew into the worker bees foraging now. Their numbers (and honey they produce now) will increase the hives chances of surviving the brutal Catskills winter and help relaunch in the early Spring. Aster nectar is transformed by the honeybee into a delicious pale amber honey on its own, and will lighten in taste and color honey made from goldenrod, another late blooming high-resource pollinator plant. Perhaps the extraordinary taste of the Fall honey harvest contains within it our intrinsic knowledge of the last days of warmth and golden light. Perhaps we see in our minds the faces of those little star-shaped flowers turned toward the sunlight and our taste buds just respond in kind to that imagined pleasure.
Some fancy that the Aster (meaning star), came from the Greek Goddess Astrea, the goddess of innocence and purity. She was the last immortal to live on earth and fled the growing tide of humanity in sorrow to take her place in the night sky. It is said that her tears at departing became the star-shaped asters so invaluable to these sweet fall foragers. O Asters! The abundant tears of a bountiful goddess, you are also beautiful, resilient, and faithful. The final sweetness of the nectar season. Farewell and thank you.