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

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Wildflower Wednesday: So Thankful for Willowleaf Asters

I love everything about Willowleaf aster.

When I say everything, I mean everything.

  • I love that it can survive frosts. 
  • I love that it's still providing food for every bee, butterfly, moth, wasp and critter that's still up and about on cooler days. 
  • I love that it has survived droughts in my garden even though it's so much happier in moist soil. 
  • I love that it's a traveler and moves around the garden via robust rhizomes to form large clonal colonies. 
  • Seriously, I don't mind that it makes a big presence, because it's easy to transplant and transplants well.
  • I love that 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.

I garden with pollinators in mind, so having flowers in bloom as close to year round as is possible in my middle Tennessee garden is important. They're active as soon as there are blooming flowers; 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

So you can imagine how thrilled I was to be gifted this delightful aster that blooms in November. My friend referred to it as 'Miss Bessie'. She didn't know the botanical name and named it after the older gardener who passed it along to her. It bloomed the first fall after it was planted and every fall for the last dozen years. 'Miss Bessie' opens in late October just as the Little ex-asters are starting to fade and continues to bloom through much of November and occasionally into December. This fall has been no exception despite challenges from a pretty serious drought. I did have to give her a few big gulps of water from the hose but, nothing stopped 'Miss Bessie' from blooming.

 Symphyotrichum praealtum is the botanical name. It's the only aster with distinctive net/reticulate veins on the undersides of the leaf, which made id-ing her easy.

Symphyotrichum praealtum with its telltale prominent veining

I hope you don't mind that I showcase this important pollinator plant every few years? It's deserving of being a frequent Wildflower Wednesday star. It's my way of encouraging more people to add it to their garden.

Willowleaf aster is an important late fall source of nectar and pollen

Not only is it a star, it's also a Clay and Limestone rough and tumble wildflower. Rough and tumble wildflowers, are generally simple flowers that bloom their hearts out and require no special care. That's exactly how I would describe Willowleaf aster. It shines in my November garden; standing straight and tall until the top heavy flowerheads bend it toward the sun. It sways in the slightest breeze and only patience and hundreds of shots yields a good photo of nectaring pollinators.

photo from last December and a frost

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.)

Symphyotrichum praealtum with its telltale prominent veining

Willowleaf aster can be grown from seed or plants. It needs full/half sun. Surface sew seeds directly in the garden in the fall. They need sun to germinate (don't cover the seed) and the cool moist stratification that happens over a winter. If you're planting rooted plants keep the soil moist until the ground is frozen. 

If you have moist garden soil you can expect it to be VERY happy! Maybe, too happy. It spreads via rhizomes to form large clonal colonies, but, please don't read this and shy away from planting it in your garden. It's so important for pollinators. Plant it in a container or with other aggressive plants.

I think it would dance beautifully with River oats, Obedient plant, Goldenrods, Sunflowers, Rudbeckias, Boltonia, Amsonia, Little Bluestem, Big Bluestem, Indiangrass, and Switchgrass.


Blooming this late in the season means that Willowleaf aster plays an important role in providing food 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. I recommend planting this beauty. Get seeds from Prairie Moon Nursery and local buyers, we can find plants at GroWild.


 The Particulars

Botanical name: Symphyotrichum praealtum

Family: Asteraceae 

Common Name: willowleaf aster

Type: Herbaceous perennial

Native Range: Southeastern to central and southwestern United States

Zone: 4 to 8 

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

Bloom Time: October to November in middle Tennessee (Zone 7b)

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 to part shade 

Water: Medium to wet 

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

Maintenance: Low. If you have an extended drought you might need to water. Divide yearly and share with friends.

Suggested Use: Rain gardens, pollinator and butterfly gardens, borders, shorelines, Rhizomatous. Tolerates temporary flooding.

Flower: Showy, lavender with yellow center

Wildlife value: Especially important to mid and late fall season pollinators Butterflies, bumblebees, "Symphyotrichum praealtum spreads via rhizomes to form large clonal colonies. 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, and this may limit the number of insects available to serve as pollinators." source 

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: Willowleaf aster is a common name, possibly because the leaves resemble willow tree leaves. Deer and rabbits usually leave this one alone. Rhizomatous/Clonal so it needs an unrelated plant to cross pollinate to get seeds.

Tolerates: Wet Soil



So, my dear readers, please join me in planting more native ex-asters! I know your pollinators will appreciate the marvelous and floriferous 'Miss Bessie' and you'll love having blooms in late fall.


PS It goes without saying, but you know me, I have to say it. If you want pollinators to visit your garden, you must, never, ever, ever, ever use pesticides. I'm not kidding...NEVER!


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.


Don't forget our Wildflower Wednesday monthly challenge! 

The first part of this challenge is to do something every month during 2023 and beyond that supports native wildflowers, pollinators, and the critters that visit and rely on our gardens. Activities that increase our knowledge of the natural world are equally as valuable. Helping others learn about nature is included. Golly gee whiz, there are so many things you can do. The second part of the challenge is to post about it somewhere: Your blog, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or even your neighborhood listserve. Wouldn't an article in the local paper be a coup for nature! Why post it? Because positive publicity is needed to educate our friends, neighbors and communities about how important even the smallest changes we make as gardeners can be for pollinators, birds, insects and mammals that live all around us. 

Why now?  My neighborhood is changing. Yours might be, too. Every day an older home along with many (if not all) of the mature oak, hickory, maple, Eastern cedar and hackberry trees that have been there for over 75 years are cut down. In place of the "bee lawns" composed of Claytonia, Salvia lyrata, Ruellia humilis, fleabane, Western Daisy, Violets, self-heal, clovers, and dandelions that grew so well in the shallow soil that sits on top of limestone bedrock are sodded non-native lawns that get daily watering, whether it rains or not. Gone are the lightening bugs. Gone are the ground dwelling/nesting native bees. Gone is the habitat for insects, spiders and other critters. Gone is plant diversity. Gone are trees that provided for hundreds of moths, butterflies and other insects. Gone are the nesting sites for woodpeckers, hummingbirds, Chickadees and other birds. It breaks my heart. We can't stop the multi-million dollar houses from going up, but, maybe we can make a lot of educational noise and help our new neighbors see the value in providing for critters.

A gardener can hope!

Here's an incomplete list of things you might consider doing or changing in your garden, but don't limit yourself to my list, make your own list or check out the internet for ideas.

Shrink your lawn and make your planting beds larger.

Plant your favorite native perennials and shrubs. Leave them standing after they've gone to seed to continue to provide for wildlife. What you plant in your yard makes a difference to wildlife. I garden for wildlife so every tree, shrub and plant is chosen with wildlife in mind.

Plant more natives and then consider planting even more. "A typical suburban landscape contains only 20-30% native plant species. Try reversing that trend in your own landscape by using 70-80% native species." (source)

Commit to never, ever, ever, ever using pesticides in the garden.

Stay away from native plant hybrids and cultivars that are double flowered. They are sterile and have no pollen or nectar for insects and no seeds for the birds. If possible plant “true open-pollinated native wildflowers”

If you want to garden for wildlife and pollinators, don't let lack of space stop you! Plant your favorite wildflowers in large containers. You just might have the prairie or woodland garden you've always wanted...in a pot!
Create a water feature. Provide water year round that is accessible to birds, bees and other critters.

Show some soil! Our native ground nesting bees nest in bare soil, so don't mulch every square inch of your garden. 

Get rid of the plastic weed barriers in your garden, it's not good for anything.

Invite bugs into your garden. Plant annuals that attract beneficial bugs.

Learn to tolerate damaged plants. Imperfection is the new perfect.

Don't be in a rush to clean up the fall garden. Leave plant stalks and seed heads standing all winter. Leave those fallen leaves or as many as you can tolerate! Insects over winter in the fallen and decaying leaves. Leave a layer of leaves as a soft landing material under trees for moths and butterflies to over winter. Many caterpillars drop to the ground from the trees in the fall.

Make a brush pile. Stack fallen brush, cut tree limbs, broken pots for ground beetles. Ground beetles are excellent at eating "bad bugs'. They're also good bird, toad and small critter food. 

Rethink what you consider a pest. Lots of good bugs eat aphids. Spiders are important predators and bird food!

Add nesting boxes for birds. 

Turn off your yard up-lighting, eave lights and porch lights after 11pm. This is important for nocturnal critters including mammals, snakes, insects, bats, birds (especially during migration). (Birdcast suggestions)

Plant shrubs and small trees that provide berries and nuts.

Keep a nature journal: Observe visitors to the water feature, make note of when they visit. Notice which flowers attract the most pollinators and which ones are just pretty faces. 

Join your state native plant society (Tennessee Native Plant Society)

Join WildOnes even if there's no local group. (Middle Tennessee WildOnes)

Support your local native plant sellers. (GroWild in middle Tennessee, Overhill Gardens in east Tennessee,  Resource Guide TN Native Plant Society)

Encourage your local garden clubs to offer native plant talks.

If your garden club has a plant sale encourage them to sell more native plants.

Get trained as a naturalist (Tennessee Naturalist Program, Almost every state has their own Master Naturalist training program)

Take an online course on tree, fungi and wildflower id.

Take a walk in your neighborhood and observe nature. To quote Joanna Brichetto in Sidewalk Nature "Look Around. Nature is here, is us, our driveways, our baseboards, parks, and parking lots."

Buy the best wildflower, butterfly and bird id books for your state.

Read nature books to your children and grandchildren. Buy them nature books.

Give nature books as baby shower gifts (Nature books for infants and toddlers)

Read! There are hundreds of books on gardening for wildlife, the environment, and rewilding our world. There are delightful blogs with wonderful and informative articles.

If you are already gardening with wildlife in mind then add a few signs that help educate your neighbors. (Xerces Society, Pollinator Partnership)

Set up an information station where neighbors can pick up brochures about your garden and other info. 

Get certified (National Wildlife Federation, check to see what your state offers)




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. Beautiful. And does it bring in the insects !

  2. It's a beauty and it's native here, too. Although, of course, it fades a few weeks earlier for us. I should try to plant it, but I'll have to try it behind fencing because the rabbits eat Asters when I plant them. Happy belated WW. <3


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