The downy heath aster, Symphyotrichum pilosum , provides one of the finest autumn shows around. It is a perennial plant of the fallow fields, disturbed ground, highway medians and abandoned lots. The tiny, white blossoms cover the plant with a snowy froth and on sunny days it is a delight when it is alive with bees and butterflies. Many people consider it a weed, even though the plant provides one of the last shows of the season and often blooms past the first light frosts. It is native to North America east of the Rockies and also to British Columbia. The species name. 'pilosum' gives us a descriptive hint. In Latin, pilos means 'hairy' and the stems of this little aster are covered in fine, fuzz-like hairs. The plants can reach over six feet tall if left unpruned, but snipping them back in July, gives a tighter, display on shorter stems.
Here in west Kentucky, the first blooms start to appear in late September or early October. It is now the 10th, and I have a froth of delicate branches overflowing with flowers. The local honeybees are working from dawn till dusk collecting pollen and nectar. Bumblebees, cuckoo bees and any number of tachnid flies, pollen-eating beetles and wasps can be found in huge numbers enjoying the buffet too. A dozen species of little skippers do their dance deep in the flowers while sulphurs, buckeyes, hairstreaks and pearl crescents float along the topmost branches. They all seem to realize that the season is fast coming to a close. Goldenrod is past its peak, the ironweed is gone and there are few food sources left for autumn insects. A large patch of them has a very light fragrance that is quite pleasant as well.
Native Americans used the plant in sweat lodges, burned it with sage and other herbs. Ground flowers were added to tobacco and also used as snuff. Tea made from the blossoms produces a calming effect much like chamomile did for our European cousins. It has been known to help asthmatics and is an expectorant as well. Although it hasn't been studied much by conventional medicine, native peoples seemed to respect it as a source to help anxiety and tremors too.
This is a member of the massive aster tribe, and that means that it reproduces prolifically. The flowers fade and typical Asteraceae fluff tipped seeds float in the wind and can take root in flowerbeds, sidewalk cracks and containers. If you use this plant in the garden, cut the foliage back and dispose of it to prevent vast numbers of unwanted seedlings, as it can get weedy if left unchecked. It is fantastic in a wildflower or prairie garden where the plants are encouraged to grow in a natural state. Bambi does find this plant tasty and will graze it occasionally, so be prepared to see it nibbled back every now and then if you have a deer problem. The good thing is, this aster doesn't seem to mind at all.
This is a tough as nails North American native that is at home in just about any environment. From the deep south to northern Canada, gardeners will find it hardy and attractive. It is one of the last shows of the year, good for pollinators and other insects to fuel up for their last push into fall. If you have the space and like wildflowers, we even have some vendors that will help you out, so give it a try in next year's garden.