Thursday, September 30, 2010

Aster Analysis With Ed

Ed Miller leads the way to the aster field at the Tanner Road Preserve near Jonesville, N.Y.

Imagine a garage-band guitarist being offered a private lesson by Eric Clapton. That's about how I felt when Ed Miller offered me a one-on-one tutorial in small white asters. Ed's a noted plant expert, and I'm a rank amateur botanizer who has struggled for years to parse out these little white flowers that all look frustratingly alike, so of course I jumped at the chance. Plus, I also got to explore another natural area preserved by Saratoga P.L.A.N. (Preserving Land And Nature), the Tanner Road Preserve, a very pretty tract of meadow, woods, and swamp in southern Saratoga County.

Our examinations were mostly confined to the open sunny areas where four species of small white asters were beautifully in bloom: Aster lanceolatus (Tall White Aster), A. ericoides (Heath or Wreath Aster), A. lateriflorus (Calico Aster), and A. pilosus (Heath or Small White Aster). There were also brilliant purple sprays of New England Aster, a species that needs no close examination to identify, since no other aster that grows around here displays that vivid a color.

But the little white ones sure do need looking at closely to tell them apart. Here, Ed uses his magnifier to peer at the bracts of a flower head. Because this flower lacked the spine-tipped bracts of A. pilosus, he determined that this one was A. lanceolatus.

In many cases, the bracts will be diagnostic. Here, for example, are the distinctive out-curving bracts of A. ericoides.

Sometimes, just a glance will be enough to tell the species apart. Here, the densely-packed floral arrangement of A. ericoides sets it distinctly apart from the surrounding A. pilosus, which has a much more open habit of bloom, as well as a larger flower.

The relative size of flower heads and the number of ray flowers can also offer clues, as this comparison of A. ericoides and A. lanceolatus reveals. Those eyelash-fine petals (actually, ray flowers) of lanceolatus are distinctive for this species. It also grows much, much taller than the other small-white-flowered ones, earning its common name of Tall White Aster.

In the case of A. lateriflorus, the angle at which the stems meet the stalk is one of the features that sets this aster apart from similar ones. Note how the stems stick out at sharp right angles. In most other aster species, that angle is more acute. Note also the preponderance of purple disks among the yellow ones. This multi-color look is what suggested the common name of Calico Aster for this species.

Now, if I can just keep all this information in my head. But sometimes it's fine to let go of the need to put a name to a flower and just stand back and marvel at its beauty. Especially when that beauty's enhanced by a visit from a Monarch butterfly.

Having resolved the matter of asters, Ed and I went for a walk through the woods that are also a wonderful feature of this nature preserve. The day was fine and the woods were lovely, and they also contained some plants I had never seen. Small-flowered Agrimony was one of them (no photo today) and Bur Oak was another. We had to hunt quite a long time to find a Bur Oak acorn, since this tree belongs to the white oak group whose sweet tannin-free nuts are much prized by squirrels. But find one we did, with its distinctive burry cap that nearly covers the nut.

I wouldn't want to step on one of these in bare feet!

We also found a few leaves that were left from last year. They look quite a bit like standard White Oak leaves with rounded lobes, except that they are distinctly top-heavy, much broader at the top than at the narrowing bottom.

While scrounging around on the forest floor looking for one of those acorns, I disturbed this tiny spider, who was hiding under the leaves. No bigger than a baby pea, it scurried away as fast as its candy-striped legs could carry it. It's only by some miracle I managed to get its picture.

Ooh, I remember you! I found a much bigger specimen of this spider while visiting my daughter in New Hampshire last month. It's a Marbled Orbweaver (Araneus marmoreus), a very pretty spider, indeed.


Louise said...

Thanks for the tutorial in asters. You helped me identify the aster that was at Ausable Chasm last week as the Calico Aster.

Anonymous said...

What a great lesson today. Asters fall into two categories for me; "field asters" and "some sort of wood aster." least I still recognize New England asters. It's nice to be able to refer to your great photos and narrative. Love the little spider!

Thank you.


Ellen Rathbone said...

Wonderful post - inspirational for taking a closer look at asters. It helps to know what to look for when one tackles these things!

Wayne said...

thanks for sharing your lessons, Jackie. Now I'll feel a little smarter than when all I knew was New England and "other asters" ;^)
Nice bug shots, too! I helped my granddaughter raise a monarch this year, and now he's on his way to Mexico. You can see the results at:

Adirondackcountrygal said...

Nice, I have some of the white asters in my back yard that came up spontaneously. Gonna keep em, or move them or something!

Jim said...

Great photos. We've had our own wildflower hunts around here the last week or so, and I'm still trying to identify some of the asters.

I've enjoyed reading your posts, and if it's OK would like to add your link to my "Blogs I Read" list.


Jacqueline Donnelly said...

Thanks, Louise, Garden Groans, Ellen, Wayne, and ADKcountrygal, for stopping by to leave your comments. Who would have thought there was this much interest in these homely little flowers? Despite all my efforts to ID them, and the excellence of my aster instruction, I still often scratch my head over which is which.

Welcome, Jim, and of course you may link to my blog. And now we can all go visit yours as you show us the wonders of hiking in Connecticut. (Just click on Jim's name.) Thanks for stopping by.