The Latest Bloomer on the Tallgrass Prairie
by Rachel Creager Ireland
One of my favorite prairie wildflowers is white heath, or heath aster, scientifically known as Symphyotrichum ericoides or Aster ericoides. It is a hardy perennial, easy to transplant and grow, but, though it is said in books to bloom August-October, I’ve never seen a hint of a bloom before mid-September. Until that magical moment, white heath looks like an unsightly weed, towering above the polite cultivars blooming prettily through the summer.
Most vigilant gardeners I know cannot bear to wait that long, to tolerate a spiky plant doing nothing whatsoever useful before the autumnal equinox. Their hands itch to take up that weed and toss it prematurely in the compost. Do not try to talk them out of it. Nobody likes that, and nobody likes this plant. Let it have a forgotten, less conspicuous location, an out-of-the way place that most people don’t see. A place nobody bothers to trim the weeds because the public won’t know they’re there. That’s the kind of place where white heath flourishes, out of sight and out of mind, until its very late moment of glory. Long after you’ve forgotten about it, when some odd errand calls you out behind the fence or over by that last tree, you’ll be startled by the explosion of white. It’s too early for snow, so that can only be the glorious white heath, at last -at long, long, last, finally, blooming!
White heath and its relatives, such as New England aster, were used by several Native American tribes for a variety of purposes. White heath in particular was used as a smoke-producing plant in sweat baths, as well as for reviving an unconscious person. See Kindscher, Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie, for more on medicinal uses of asters.
And if you’re out in the Flint Hills, do look for this lovely flower. It’ll be around for us to enjoy until the frost.