Umm… It’s June, Y’all.

While hiking Billy Goat A in search of cactus blossoms and the S1 plant I mentioned last time, I saw two different stands of these lovely flowers.

 

 

They’re Ionactis linariifolia (Asteraceae), one of the few aster species that I can ID on sight, because of the stiff, linear leaves, which might be unique among Maryland Piedmont asters. Don’t quote me on that; I didn’t scroll through all 41 species (in five genera) to find out.

The specific epithet refers to leaves resembling those of the genus Linaria; also it sounds like “linear”, which is how they are shaped.

At any rate, the reason I want to highlight them today is that I’ve only ever seen them blooming in October. Most asters don’t even start until September, maybe late August.

This is just weird and I have no explanation.

The More I Learn, the Less I Know

Readers of this blog will have noticed that I am fascinated by names. It isn’t enough for me to spot a plant and say “that’s a goldenrod”; I need to know which goldenrod, the actual species name, what other common names there might be for it and what the Latin words translate to and how it relates to other species… and pretty much anything else related to its taxonomy.

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No plant has led me into taxonomic Wonderland like this one —>.
I first saw it at Serpentine Barrens Conservation Park, in late August in bud, then in October in flower (kind of).

Right away I recognized it for a goldenrod, yet it looked a little different from other goldenrods. The flower heads weren’t in plumes or in the leaf axils like other goldenrods I know. So I took a few pictures, went home, and opened the books. It was easily categorized into “flat-topped goldenrods”, sometimes known as goldentops, for which Newcomb lists two Solidago species and Peterson lists four; Clemants and Gracie list two Euthamia species and two Oligoneuron species.

Hmm. Time to open more books.

Melanie Choukas-Bradley, in An Illustrated Guide to Eastern Woodland Wildflowers and Trees (2004), describes a lance-leaved goldenrod, Solidago graminifolia, noting that it’s also called Euthamia graminifolia, and also noting that “some botanists…consign the flat-topped goldenrods to a separate genus (Euthamia).”

Fleming, Lobstein, and Tufty, in Finding Wildflowers in the Washington-Baltimore Area (1995), report seeing “lance-leaved goldenrod (Solidago graminifolia)” in the area where I found this plant (they call the area the Potomac Power Line).

At this point I had tentatively decided that what I found and photographed would currently be called Euthamia graminifolia. I decided to run it by a few experts for confirmation. That’s when I learned that Euthamia is a “problem genus”.

Now I was really interested in learning what was going on, so I consulted a bunch of internet sources, and that’s when things got a little crazy.

In short, the USDA PLANTS Database lists six Euthamia species, not all of which are found in the Maryland Piedmont. BONAP lists five, only one of which is in the Piedmont. MBP lists four, only one of which is in the Piedmont. ITIS recognizes four species, and lists thirty-six Latin synonyms for E. graminifolia. Thirty-six!

Now totally confused, I consulted even more authorities, and found the following:

from EOL

 Euthamia is a genus of flowering plants in the aster family, Asteraceae.[2][3] They are known commonly as goldentops[4] and grass-leaved goldenrods.[5][6]

The species were formerly classed in genus Solidago, the goldenrods. They were separated on the basis of morphological differences, such as the arrangement of the flower heads in the inflorescence and the glands on the leaves, and of DNA data.[7] Authors have recognized 5 to 10 species.[5]

from the Astereae Lab:

Euthamia… is a small genus of erect, herbaceous perennials native to North America. Sierren (1981) revised the genus and recognized nine eastern species and one western species. Haines (2006 Flora North America) recognized only five species. Euthamia was incorrectly included in Solidago by many authors for a more than a century. Cronquist (1981) accepted the distinct generic status for this group of species on the basis of morphology and leaf anatomy (Anderson and Creech 1975).

Lane et al. (1996) showed that the on the bases of cpDNA, Euthamia was phylogenetically not close to the true goldenrods with a number of other genera more closely related…

Unfortunately, the practice of placing the grass-leaved goldenrods in Solidago continues and leads to errors in interpreting the results of ecological studies.

 

And finally, Flora of the Southern and Mid-Atlantic States (Alan S. Weakley, 2015) lists six species, with the note that Euthamia is

A genus of about 8-10 species, herbs, of North America. There are a number of serious problems remaining in our knowledge of Euthamia.

Apparently so.

Weakley’s key is excellent, and if I can get back to the park before the plant is done blooming, I might be able to key it out. Stay tuned…

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on-line sources

USDA PLANTS Database
BONAP (The Biota of North America Program)
MBP (Maryland Biodiversity Project)
ITIS (Integrated Taxonomic Information System)
EOL (Encyclopedia of Life)
Astereae Lab (University of Waterloo)
Weakley Flora (The University of North Carolina Herbarium)

Mystery Aster

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As I wrote earlier this month, identifying asters can be somewhat tricky. I still haven’t tried getting on the internet and finding a dichotomous key while in the field. But one day last week, while testing a rented wide angle lens, I stumbled on these late-bloomers near Harper’s Ferry, WV. I tried to key them out using my pictures, but couldn’t quite manage – there was always one detail that was not quite right.

So I cheated and asked on an internet forum. The experts there weren’t sure, either, but the best fit to the available information seems to be that this is aromatic aster, Symphyotrichum oblongifolium. Other people keyed it out and got S. pratense (barrens silky aster), which doesn’t grow in that area, and S. novae-angliae (New England aster), which is still a possibility.

Aromatic aster grows in Frederick, Montgomery, and Prince George’s county in Maryland (per the Maryland Biodiversity Project). Otherwise in the mid-Atlantic it looks to be western, occurring in the Blue Ridge, Ridge and Valley, and Appalachian Plateau physiographic regions more than the Piedmont. It ranges west to the Rocky Mountain states, north to New York, and south to Alabama. It’s listed as rare in Indiana and is threatened in Ohio.

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The asters are the latest blooming plants in this area, except for witch hazel, so it might be time to put this blog to bed for the winter soon.

By the way, the lens I rented was a Nikon 16-35mm f/4, not exactly a great choice for the close-up work that I like to do with plants, but just look at the clarity in the top photo! And at ISO 640! And that’s zoomed way in with Lightroom. Now I really want to buy this lens.

 

Linear Leaf

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stiff aster, aka flax-leaf aster
Ionactis linariifolia
formerly Aster linariifolius
Asteraceae

 

After all the mucking about trying to identify various Symphyotrichums [see previous post], it was a relief to find this small stand of plants.  The very long, narrow, one-veined leaves on often-unbranched plants and the terminal inflorescence made for easy identification.

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This eastern species ranges from Texas northeasterward to Minnesota, and further north and east into Quebec and New Brunswick.  It’s threatened in Iowa.

Four other species of Ionactis occur in North America, but they’re all found west of the Rocky Mountains.

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Are Asters Really Asters?

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The plants we commonly think of as asters are all over the Potomac Gorge and the mid-Atlantic Piedmont at this time of year. But, botanically speaking, they aren’t actually asters. Or perhaps it would be more correct to say that they aren’t actually Asters.

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the two photos above show adjacent leaves on the same plant

At one time the genus Aster comprised about six hundred different species in Asia, Europe, and North America, but molecular phylogeny research led to a major reclassification. As a result, only one species native to North America is left in the genus Aster. Other than that one (A. alpinus), Aster is reserved for Eurasian species. The North American aster species were placed into ten new genera.

Species in five of those genera, Doellingeria, Eurybia, Ionactis, Sericocarpus, and Symphyotrichum, are found in my geographic area of interest.

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Newer guidebooks, like Clemants and Gracie’s Wildflowers in the Field and Forest, reflect these changes.

In many cases, the name change is straightforward: Aster ericoides is now known as Symphyotrichum ericoides, for example.  But in some cases – like with the flowers pictured in this post – it’s anything but straightforward.

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I was studying these pictures and using the venerable Newcomb’s and Peterson’s guides to try to figure out whether they’re Aster sagittifolius, Aster lowrieanus, or Aster cordifolius (and expecting that they would likely be the Symphyotrichum equivalent). Not making much progress, I turned to the internet, and found the following:

According to USDA Plants, Aster cordifolius is now Symphyotrichum cordifolium, a name accepted by ITIS.

According to USDA Plants, Aster lowrieanus is Symphyotrichum lowrieanum, a name not accepted by ITIS, which considers S. lowrieanum to be a synonym for S. cordifolium.

And Aster sagittifolius seems not to have made the cut. Searching for it in USDA Plants leads to S. cordifolium. Searching for it in ITIS leads to both S. cordifolium and S. urophyllum.

Confused yet? So am I. And without a sample at hand I can’t really narrow them down. In order to correctly identify them, I’m going to have to either collect samples (which I won’t do, for both ethical and legal reasons), or try to use my iPhone to access a good dichotomous key on the internet while in the field. It doesn’t help that by the time I found these plants, they had lost their lowest stem leaves.  By now they might be pretty ragged.

In the meantime, I’ve decided that both common blue wood aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium) and arrow-leaf aster (Symphyotrichum urophyllum) are pictured here. As always, I welcome correction. Including corrections of typos.  I’ve proofread this so many times I can no longer see straight.

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Postscript: Just for fun, here’s an excerpt from the Astereae Lab overview of asters:
“…However, during the last decade analyses of morphology, chloroplast DNA restriction fragment length polymorphisms and ITS sequence data, and on going karyotype studies have all demonstrated that asters are polyphyletic and members of a number of very distinct phylads within the tribe…”
————
I researched the hell out of this subject, and used the following sources extensively:
USDA Plants database
ITIS
Maryland Biodiversity Project
University of Waterloo Astereae Lab
Wikipedia
Illinois Wildflowers

Not Quite a Drought

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the narrow channel between Billy Goat B and Offutt Island; the river is really low – all the land in this picture should be underwater

After three weeks’ absence I eagerly hit the Billy Goat B trail yesterday, expecting to find a lot of asters and goldenrods.  What I actually found was a whole lot of nothing.

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that is one sad looking maple

OK, not really nothing, of course.  And although we are not yet officially in a drought, we are abnormally dry here.  As a result, the wildflower show is really muted.  Plants are going dormant early, their leaves wilted or brown (at least, I hope they’re going dormant, and not dying).  Many trees have lost their leaves already, and others’ leaves are turning brown

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this black walnut isn’t too happy, either

I saw plenty of white snakeroot, which is dominant at this time of year regardless of weather, a fair amount of wingstem, several different species of goldenrod, a few silverrods budding up, a few scattered asters, one plant in the genus Bidens, and that’s about it.

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look at all the brown plants behind this smooth aster

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that’s a sorry looking wingstem, but the bumblebee doesn’t seem to mind

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riverbank goldenrod says “what is drought?”

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calyces on bugleweed

Flower of the Day: Short’s Aster

Symphyotrichum shortii; Asteraceae (aster family)

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Some things to consider when trying to identify asters:

  • size of flower head
  • number of ray flowers
  • number of disk flowers
  • color of flowers (not as important as you may think)
  • shape and size of leaf, including the leaf base and leaf tip
  • leaf margin
  • arrangement of leaves on the stem and whether they’re more or less consistently sized
  • shape, size, color, and number of rows of phyllaries (bracts)
  • presence of glands
  • smoothness (or not) and color of stems

…you get the idea.  Actually this is a pretty general list, but with almost 90 species of Symphyotrichum found in the US (about two dozen in this area), you really have to pay attention to details.

All of which is to say, I’m not always sure I’ve correctly id’d all the asters I’ve been posting about.  But they sure are pretty.

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