Winter Blues

Virginia bluebells carpeting a Potomac River floodplain last spring

Happy new year! I’m back, after a truly epic case of writer’s block. Not that there’s anything blooming to write about yet, since the local wildflower show won’t be starting until late February at the earliest, more likely mid-March if this winter stays as cold as it has been. Which has been pretty darn cold compared to the last five years or so, but not that unusual compared to, say, the past 50 years.

At any rate I’m fighting the winter blues by recalling blue flowers I found this past year. Here are a few from the Maryland Piedmont.

Anemone americana (formerly Hepatica nobilis var obtusa; round-lobed hepatica; Ranunculaceae)
This species is hibernal – the basal rosette of leaves will be out right now, though likely hidden under leaf litter. The leaves will die back as the small flowers appear just an inch or two off the ground. In the Piedmont I’ve seen them as early as early March and as late as mid April, though they don’t bloom for long; they just seem highly variable about when they start blooming.

Baptisia australis (wild blue indigo; Fabaceae)
This species is found primarily in prairies, but also occurs in some prairie-like habitats east of the Appalachians, including bedrock terraces in the Potomac gorge. According to the Maryland DNR’s new RTE list, there are only a few populations here. It’s listed S2/Threatened. Finding it is a real treat.

Clitoria mariana (Atlantic pigeonwings, butterfly pea; Fabaceae)
I’ve only seen this in a few places, always in rocky areas in a bit of shade, and there’s never much of it. Start looking in mid June.



Conoclinium coelestinum (formerly Eupatorium coelestinum; blue mistflower; Asteraceae)
This medium-height plant blooms from June through September in wet soils next to the Potomac River – not right on the banks, but close by.


Houstonia caeulea (azure bluet, little bluet, Quaker ladies; Rubiaceae)
These tiny flowers bloom en masse in April and May in moist, rocky soils in open wooded areas. Sometimes you’ll see only a few, but other times you may find them carpeting a meadow. They are really tricky to photograph up close, as even the slightest breeze sets them in motion.

Ionactis linariifolia (formerly Aster linariifolius; flax-leaved aster; Asteraceae)
I’ve seen this species blooming in a rocky meadow in the Carderock area in October of the last few years, but also in open, rocky areas of the Billy Goat A trail – in June!


Iris species, either I. versicolor or I. virginica (northern blue flag or southern blue flag; Iridaceae)
These flowers drove me nuts in 2017. I posted many times about my quest to determine exactly which species it is. There are scattered stands along and near the C&O Canal from the Marsden Tract upstream to Widewater; look for it in late May or early June.

Lobelia siphilitica (great blue lobelia; Campanulaceae) stands dramatically tall on riverbanks. I’ve seen two stands of them along the Potomac: one just upriver of the American Legion bridge, the other near Fletcher’s Boathouse in DC.


Mertensia virginica (Virginia bluebells; Boraginaceae)
This spring ephemeral often grows in large swaths in floodplains, like in the lead-in photo above. The pink buds start turning blue as they open. This species can also flower in pure white, pure pink, and pale violet; I love hunting for these variations every April.

Phacelia covillei (Coville’s phacelia, buttercup scorpionweed; Boraginaceae)
A short annual plant with tiny flowers that have to be seen up close to be appreciated. Currently listed S2/Endangered by the Maryland DNR, with a proposed change of status to Threatened.

Phacelia dubia (small-flowered phacelia or scorpionweed; Boraginaceae)
A fellow botanerd directed me to a large stand of this species last spring. Most of those flowers appeared white, but up close a few had this pale blue cast.


Phacelia purshii (fringed phacelia, Miami mist; Boraginaceae)
Listed S3 in Maryland. I’ve found only three stands of it between the Potomac and the Billy Goat B and C trails.


Scutellaria elliptica (hairy skullcap; Lamiaceae)
Look for sparse stands of these from Carderock to the Marsden Tract, in rocky soils where the woods aren’t too dense.



Tradescantia virginiana (Virginia spiderwort; Commelinaceae)
In some lighting situations this flower looks more purple than blue, but oh well. I’ll cover purple flowers in a future post. The plant has iris-like foliage: broad blades with parallel veins. The three-petaled flowers are another clue that this plant is a monocot. Which gives me an idea for another future post.

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.

Linear Leaf


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


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.


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.


Are Asters Really Asters?


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.

20151014-_DSC0088 20151014-_DSC0089

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.


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.


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.


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
Maryland Biodiversity Project
University of Waterloo Astereae Lab
Illinois Wildflowers