Home of the Practically Perfect Pink Phlox and other native plants for pollinators

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Wildflower Wednesday: A favorite late blooming Asteracea

I appreciate flowers that bloom later in Autumn and that's exactly what I've come to expect from our star, Symphyotrichum praealtum

 Symphyotrichum praealtum is a tall grass prairie native that is harder to find than a tall grass prairie in Tennessee. It's listed as an endangered and threatened species in several states, including Tennessee, and in several Canadian provinces. (Go here to read about rescue efforts in Canada.) 

Luckily for me, a blogging friend generously shared several starts of the plant she calls 'Miss Bessie'. I am happy to say they have bloomed at Clay and Limestone for over a dozen years.

 It's ironic and wonderful that an endangered Middle Tennessee wildflower found its way home via North Carolina.

Having flowers in bloom as close to year round as is possible in my middle Tennessee garden is important. I garden with pollinators in mind. They're active as soon as there are blooming flowers. In my garden, that means small flies and gnats will be buzzing around the late winter blooming witch hazels in January and February. Pollinator action gets busier when the spring ephemerals bloom and the mason bees and honeybees arrive. From then on, bumbles, green metallic bees, mason bees, big and tiny carpenter bees, sweat bees, flower flies, beetles, moths, butterflies, skippers, and Hummingbirds are busy visiting every plant that offers nectar and/or pollen. Come fall, the rush to get ready for winter ramps up the activity and the little ex-asters are covered with every imaginable pollinating critter.

Long-tailed Skipper/Urbanus proteus on Willow-leaf aster

After the ex-asters fade Symphyotrichum praealtum/Willowleaf aster bursts into blooms. 

Suffice it to say that it reigns supreme as my longest blooming rough and tumble wildflower, often continuing to bloom after freezing temperatures. Rough and tumble wildflowers are simple flowers that haven't had their best characteristics hybridized out of them. They bloom their hearts out and require no special care. That's Willow-leaf aster to a T.

 'Miss Bessie' begins blooming in mid to late October just as the Little ex-asters are starting to fade and continues to bloom through much of November.  The inflorescence consists of a series of leafy flower clusters with the lowermost branches generally being the longest. The stalks of the flowering heads are moderately to densely hairy. The hairless, leaf-like bracts (phyllaries) surrounding the flower heads are borne in 4-6 strongly graduated series; each has a small, green, diamond-shaped zone towards the tip. The flower heads have 20-35 outer florets with pale blue-violet rays; the central yellow disc florets number 20-30 and become purple/ brown once pollinated or aged.

The common name for our star is Willowleaf, named for the shape of the leaves, which are said to resemble willow tree leaves. The upright stems are smooth, waxy and usually 50 to 150 cm tall, with alternate, narrow leaves that attach directly to the stem with no stalk or only a short taper from the leaf. Leaves on the lower part of the plant may grow up to 14 cm long and 1 cm wide, while leaves on the upper and middle branches are shorter. (source) It's not unusual for Willowleaf plants to lose the lower leaves as the season progresses. This is especially true in my garden during dry periods.


Willowleaf aster is native to much of the eastern and central United States (including Texas), to several northern Mexican states, and to the extreme southern portion of Ontario, Canada. It has been introduced to central Europe. It's found growing in moist, open habitats including wet prairies and meadows, shores, oak savannahs, ditches and roadsides. It is not a Xeric plant!

Symphyotrichum praealtum often forms dense clonal colonies, spreading aggressively by rhizomes. The species does not self-pollinate; cross-pollination with a genetically distinct plant is required for the production of seeds.* The seeds are wind-dispersed. In some areas, this species may be the latest-flowering plant, which may limit the number of insects available to serve as pollinators.  (source)

I appreciate wildflowers that have good wildlife value and Willowleaf aster is an extremely important food source for pollinators still out and about on those beautiful warm fall days. One source suggests that it's a go to food source for migrating Monarch Butterflies. If you're fortunate to live along the Monarch Trail and have space/don't mind editing a clonal spreader then plant this beauty. Plant this beauty even if you don't live along the Trail. I don't and I am so glad that on warmer fall days the bumbles, Metallic green bees and my neighbors visiting honeybees have a food source.
All the pollinators adore this beauty. By all, I mean every Bumble, tiny little fly, small bee or Skipper that's in the garden can be found nectaring on the sweet lilac-blue flowers from the time the sun moves past the canopy trees and warms up the garden, until it sets and everything cools off.
sleeping bumble

Willowleaf aster is THE gathering place for all the bumbles at the end of a hard day! Bumbles are the last to leave my garden at night and it's not unusual to find them slumbering on the flowers on a cool Autumn morning. I always thank them and wish them a good day, they are quite the hardest workers in my garden.

Willow-leaf aster stands straight and tall until the top heavy blooms have it leaning toward the sun. It sways in the slightest breeze and looks good with native grasses and other forbs. Mine compete with Solidago, Chasmanthium latifolium, Panicum vergatum, and other Symphyotrichums. Like other asters it will spread vegetatively and by seed. You may have to edit, but, your gardening friends will love when you gift them this aster, but, probably not nearly as much as their pollinators will.



The Particulars  

Botanical name: Symphyotrichum praealtum

Common name: Willowleaf aster, Willow aster

Family: Asteracea

Type: Herbacious perennial


USDA Zone: 4 to 9

Size:  Height: 2.00 to 5.00 feet Spread: 1.50 to 4.00 feet

Bloom time: October to November/December in Middle Tennessee

Bloom description: Blue to purple daisy-like composite flowers about ½–¾" across. Each flower has 20-30 has lavender (less often white) ray florets surrounding numerous yellow disk florets that eventually become reddish purple.

Sun: Full sun, half sun

Maintenance: Water when very dry; divide yearly

Habitat: Wet low ground, moist meadows, prairie swales, stream and pond edges, open thickets, and roadsides; loamy soil. Please note: NOT a xeric plant.

Faunal associations: Many kinds of insects visit the flowers, including long-tongued bees, short-tongued bees, flies, butterflies, and skippers. Among the bees, this includes such visitors as honeybees, bumblebees, Halictine bees, and some Andrenid bees that fly late in the season. Some Syrphid flies and beetles may feed on the pollen, otherwise these insects seek nectar; bees also collect pollen for their larvae. The caterpillars of the butterflies Chlosyne nycteis (Silvery Checkerspot) Phyciodes tharos (Pearl Crescent) feed on the foliage, as well as the caterpillars of several species of moths. (source)

Comments: Deer and rabbits usually leave this one alone. Rhizomatous/Clonal so it needs an unrelated plant to cross pollinate.  

The Willow-leafAster can be distinguished from other asters (Symphyotrichum spp.) by the conspicuous reticulated pattern on the lower surface of its leaves.

Companion plants: Any native grasses, especially tall prairie grasses. Goldenrods, Sunflowers, Rudbeckias, Boltonia, Amsonia.

Uses: Rain gardens, pollinator and butterfly gardens, borders, shorelines. Tolerates temporary flooding. 

 Seeds: Prairie Moon Nursery, Prairie Legacy, Inc

Welcome to Clay and Limestone's Wildflower Wednesday celebration. I am so glad you stopped by. WW is about sharing and celebrating wildflowers from all over this great big, beautiful world. Join us on the fourth Wednesday of each month. Remember, it doesn't matter if they are in bloom and, it doesn't matter if we all share the same plants; it's all about celebrating wildflowers. Please leave a comment when you add your url to Mr Linky.


Gail Eichelberger is a gardener and therapist in Middle Tennessee. She loves wildflowers and native plants and thoroughly enjoys writing about the ones she grows at Clay and Limestone. She reminds all that the words and images are the property of the author and cannot be used without written permission.


  1. A beautiful flower - and a beautiful climate! We have just finished our cleanup. Even the Sheffield daisies gave up the ghost.

  2. It's a beauty! Great photos with the pollinators, too, Gail. One of my goals for 2021 is to participate in your meme and others much more often. This has been a crazy year--personally, professionally, and COVIDly. Stay safe and healthy. Happy Thanksgiving!

    1. You are always welcome my dear. Your writing and posts are a delight.

  3. This is a good one Gail. I would love to source this one. I would like to have a late bloomer that is purple.

    1. Put a reminder on your spring calendar and I will send you a piece or two.

  4. I have a pair of blue flowers for you this time.

  5. Better late than never, right? I am so glad to see you're still posting Wildflower Wednesdays!

    Tropical storm Zeta sadly finished off Miss Bessie here in NC, so a bit earlier than usual. It's such a great late flowering plant for pollinators. As always your bee pictures are both adorable and beautiful.

  6. She's definitely a beauty! I have to admit that I can't tell asters apart, ex or not, so they are all simply asters, no matter what. Haha

  7. Hi Gail my address is sweetbay103@icloud.com if you want to chat. I'd love to hear from you.

  8. Gail - a beautiful post! It's a great reminder that there were good an beautiful moments in this pandemic year. Thank you for sharing!


"Insects are the little things that run the world." Dr. E O Wilson