The Asteraceae (Part 1)



The Asteraceae, an enormous and very important plant family (in botanical nomenclature, the ending -eae denotes a family), include some of our most beautiful and iconic native plants, such as sunflowers, Rudbeckias, Echinaceas, and Asters, as well as some less familiar plants such as Liatris, ironweed, and joe-pye weed. Now that we’re close to the end of the season, I’ve been reviewing this year’s photos, and I’d like to focus on all the members of the family that grace my garden throughout the summer and fall.

Most members of this family, which includes over 23,000 species classified into over 1,600 genera, are herbaceous (i.e., not woody) perennials, but there are some shrubs and vines as well. Most live in drier regions of the temperate zones all over the world. Most have the familiar daisy-type flower, composed of a central disk consisting of many tiny true flowers, surrounded by colorful rays (the petals). Because of the flower structure, members of the family are often referred to as “composites,” and another name for the family itself is Compositae. They’re colorful and beautiful and extremely attractive to pollinating insects, as the photo at the beginning of this post shows, and they bloom primarily in summer and fall.

Economically, members of the family are extremely important–think about foods such as sunflower oil and seeds, lettuce, and artichokes; and ornamental flowers such as marigolds, dahlias, and chrysanthemums. They’re also major weed plants: think ragweed, dandelions, and thistles.

In my garden, as in yours, the Asteraceae display begins with the dandelions of very early spring. The first family member I look forward to, however, doesn’t bloom until around July 1: Echinacea purpurea, or purple coneflower.


It displays all the features of the family: the true flowers are the tiny red-brown structures at the center. The colorful rays are for show–they help pollinating insects find the tiny, inconspicuous flowers.

Echinaceas are a truly wonderful native species, but they don’t do well in my garden. The soil is too dry, and there are too many rabbits (rabbits love this plant). Each year, one or two manage to bloom, usually because they’re tucked away in out-of-the way places.

The Rudbeckias are a different story, however. They bloom with all their might, starting in early July; now. in mid-September, they’re still at it. About the same time I see the first Rudbeckia subtomentosa (sweet black-eyed susan), several other composites are blooming my my garden–sweet joe-pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum). New York ironweed (Vernonia fasciculata), and blazingstar (Liatris borealis).

The first Rudbeckia opens--summer is really here!


Sweet joe-pye weed beginning to bloom.



And then it’s early August, and time for the loveliest of all, brown-eyed susan (R. triloba).


But the full glory of the Asteraceae isn’t revealed until fall. Come back tomorrow for the remainder of the season. And consider which of these, or the many other members of the family, you could add to your garden next year.


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