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New England asters bloom late

A growth of New England aster standing tall in bloom on an October day. Photo by Larry Weber

By the time we reach mid-October, we've seen much of what fall has to offer in the Northland.

Shorter days — now 11 hours of daylight — have triggered the migration with many kinds of birds and the flight of raptors, geese and songbirds continues to show this phenomenon.

Temperatures are dropping as we go through this month and the first sporadic frosts are now becoming more frequent. Flurries may even be in the air. Our arboreal leaf show has come and mostly gone, but is still lingering with the yellow leaves of silver maples and weeping willows in yards and parks while the glow of tamaracks shines in the swamps.

This fall foliage finale will often go right up to the end of the month. But most of our deciduous trees are largely or completely devoid of leaves at this time. The other colorful plant news of the autumn is also waning.

Fall wildflowers began their blossoming in late July. A couple of weeks later, in August, they were thriving in the sunlight and fields and roadsides were of varying colors. The group of fall flora is large and diverse and includes many alien plants that could be considered as noxious weeds.

But it is the three large groups of native plants that I think give the widest and most impressive show of the season. Made up of sunflowers, goldenrods and asters, this autumn trio has a long growing and flowering season. Each has about 10 kinds of fairly common flowers in the Northland and is easy to see. They take advantage of the sunny sites and many grow quite tall. Among the sunflowers (including coneflowers), I have found black-eyed Susans and oxeye starting in July and still in bloom in September. Soon, tall and stiff-leaf sunflowers, green- and gray-headed coneflowers are adding their yellows to the roadsides.

Most have waned by this time, but a couple of late ones, sneezeweed and maximilian sunflowers, still hold open blossoms in October.

Goldenrods began by mid-July with two kinds, early and Missouri goldenrods setting the pace. Quickly grass-leaf and Canada goldenrods were present, too. The smaller gray and hairy goldenrods also appeared in the roadsides and fields while bog goldenrod in the wetlands and zigzag goldenrod was in the woods. Toward the end of their blooming season, tall and late goldenrods dominated the scene.

Maybe the best examples of fall wildflowers are the asters. They appear late, usually not until August, and last long. Being blue, purple or white, they add diverse colors to autumn days. Common species in the Northland include flattop, marsh, swamp, large-leaf, calico, smooth, arrow-leaf and Lindley's.

With composite flowers made up of rays and discs, they last through most of September. But one more kind gives an encore to their show: New England aster is the last to flower and the last to fade.

Tall — 3-6 feet — they grow in clusters and demand our attention in this season. Rays are deep purple and grow at the top of the plant. Though called "New England," they are common in prairies, but not so frequent in the Northland. I find them each fall along various trails and roads, but never abundantly.

Plants are hardy and robust and seem to stand up to the impending frosts and cold. And, yes, they are here and still flowering at this time.

Starting to bloom in September, when many others are finish, New England asters continue to flower well into October, adding blue-purple to this colorful month.

Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o Katie Rohman at