Few flowers evoke a season more than the showy purple blossoms of New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) that signal the beginning of fall. These cheerful flowers with their contrasting yellow centers may be found in a variety of sunny habitats in Indiana and much of the northeastern United States.
New England aster is a rather robust herbaceous perennial, often reaching 4 feet in height. Its leaves are distinctively lobed at the base, appearing to clasp the stem. Leaves on the lower stem are about 3 inches long, but they are much reduced in size on the upper stem and branches. Flowering typically commences by the middle of September and often continues until the middle of October. The flowers are up to 1.5 inches in diameter with 30 or more bright purple rays radiating from the center. Following flowering, seeds quickly mature in early November. They are dispersed by the wind like many other members of the daisy family thanks to the fluffy pappus connected to the top of the seed.
This striking flower occurs throughout most of Indiana, although it may be absent from a few counties in the south-central portion of the state. It frequently occurs in meadows, old fields and roadsides. Its original habitats prior to agricultural clearing included prairie openings, sedge meadows and fens. It prefers moist soil but tolerates drought. New England aster is widely distributed in the northeastern quarter of the United States north of the Ohio and Missouri Rivers. It occurs more sporadically south of this area to Arkansas and central Alabama.
A very adaptable plant, New England aster allows establishment in disturbed habitats. There it often accompanies several species of goldenrods, creating a very showy combination of purple and yellow in abandoned fields and along roadsides.
Few wildflowers have a higher value to pollinators than New England aster. Native bees such as carpenter bees, leafcutter bees, bumble bees, cuckoo bees and green sweat bees frequent the flowers, which are especially attractive to butterflies, including the monarch. Since its flowering season coincides with the annual monarch migration, New England aster is a vital fuel source for this annual spectacle. Dozens of monarchs may often be seen nectaring in fields where New England aster is common.
New England aster is easily cultivated in moist soil and full sun. It may be rather tall and floppy in many situations since it frequently reaches 5 feet in height in rich garden soils. In order to keep it more compact, the stems may be cut halfway back in early summer, creating a shorter, bushier plant. Several cultivars with varying flower colors including pink, magenta and rose are available in the nursery trade. Also available are compact cultivars such as “Purple Dome” and “Vibrant Dome” that only reach 18-24 inches in height.