Our Earliest Aster

In much the same habitat as Virginia bluebells grows our earliest-blooming aster family species: Packera aurea (formerly Senecio aureus), commonly known as golden ragwort or golden groundsel. It starts blooming about the same time as the bluebells, but in the Potomac Gorge area seems to hit peak bloom just after the bluebells do.

Though they grow together, I’ve noticed that golden ragwort may have a bit more tolerance for slightly drier soils than the bluebells do. In some areas I can see that the land closest to the river is carpeted in bluebells, while a short distance away – on the other side of the trail, for example, where the land starts sloping upward – the carpet changes to ragwort.

Golden ragwort is a colony-forming perennial forb that grows to about two and a half feet tall. The flowers are borne on a corymb ( a more or less flat-topped cluster) and have the typical aster family arrangement of ray flowers and disk flowers.


The basal leaves are oval with a cordate base and have scalloped edges and long petioles.




The stem leaves are completely different: narrower, deeply lobed, and sessile or clasping.



Golden ragwort is one of 57 Packera species native to North America. Look for it growing in moist to wet woodlands in the mid-West, mid-Atlantic, New England, a few parts of the South, and eastern Canada.

Two More from the Asteraceae

Into the final few days of Death Valley reports…20160308-_DSC0135

pebble pincushion
Chaenactis carphoclinia

This pretty flower is an annual growing to two feet tall (at best), and is found in the Great Basin, Mojave, and Sonora deserts of Utah, California, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico. All species in the genus Chaenactis are found only in the western US.




Mojave ragwort, Mojave groundsel
Senecio mohavensis

And this not so pretty flower is also an annual, also growing to about two feet tall.  It’s found in the Mojave and Sonora deserts of California, Nevada, and Arizona. Senecio is mostly a western genus but two species appear in the east, including pilewort, which, confusingly, is no longer considered to be in the genus Senecio. Those darn splitters have been at it again.


The Earliest of the Asters: Golden Ragwort


Packera aurea (formerly Senecio aureus); Asteraceae

Based on a few years’ observations, I’ve concluded that about one in five flowering plants in the Potomac Gorge are in the aster family.  But most of them won’t start showing up until summer.  Golden ragwort is always the first.

It’s an interesting plant.  The basal leaves appear first: toothed, rounded to oval and indented at the base, they are totally different from the stem leaves, which are elongate and deeply lobed.


The buds are deep purple, opening to golden blossoms.

Golden ragwort forms vast stands in moist bottomlands throughout the eastern US and Canada, blooming about the same time as wild blue phlox and as the Virginia bluebells start to fade.