The aster family is putting on its show of the year right now! Oh, there have been members of the aster family blooming throughout the summer, but they are center stage now. They seem to be flowering everywhere, with the goldenrods, sunflowers, gumweed, and of course the fall asters sporting their colors.
All those members of the aster family are not only putting on a colorful show they are also telling us that summer is winding down, autumn is about to put on its annual color show, harvest is on, school is starring, and, winter will soon be chomping at the bit.
The aster family is perhaps the largest family of flowering plants. Some botanists rank them second to only the orchids. But with around 150 genera and 23,000 species, they are gargantuan in their importance. Globally the ranking may be debatable, but in North America they are number one! North Dakota is home to over 180 species in the aster family, which may outrank the grass family.
We may comment on seeing a sunflower or an aster flower, but that is a misnomer. What we call a sunflower or an aster flower is actually a cluster of flowers, or what botanists call an inflorescence.
Let’s use a sunflower as an example. The flowers in the center of the head are called disk flowers while the flowers on the periphery of the head produce petal-like structures and are called ray flowers. That we commonly think of as petals are more accurately rays on the ray flowers. The center portion of the head, disk flowers, lack rays. Dandelions are a little different. They produce only ray flowers.
In addition to the sunflowers, goldenrods, and asters, the aster family also includes yarrow, sages and thistles. Many members of the family have become domesticated food and spices such as marigolds, dahlias, zinnias, chrysanthemums, lettuce, safflower, artichokes, Jerusalem artichokes, endive, and tarragon. Some native members of the family are even gaining interest as ornamentals. Yarrow and purple coneflower, for example, are now widely available.
So the next time you observe a member of this extensive and important plant family, consider taking a closer look…at all those flowers!