Wavy leaf aster – A late feast for pollinators

Wavy leaf aster (Symphyotrichum undulatum) is a late blooming wildflower that is native to most of the eastern U.S. It can be a valuable late season source of nectar and/or pollen for bees, butterflies, and other flower visitors. Photo credit: John Cameron, GNU Free Documentation License

The wavy leaf aster (Symphyotrichum undulatum) is a late blooming wildflower that is native to most of the eastern U.S. It is fairly common throughout much of its range and can be found growing wild in dry, open woods and along woods edges. Like many of our other asters, wavy leaf aster can also make a good addition to pollinator gardens and native plant gardens.

Wavy leaf asters produce loose clusters of pale blue (sometimes almost white) flowers with yellow centers. This is one of our last wildflowers to bloom each year. The bloom period across its entire range is August through November. However, exactly when a given plant will bloom depends on its location with northern plants blooming earlier than plants further south. For reference, in Kentucky, wavy leaf asters typically bloom October through November. I often find them blooming even after we’ve had our first few frosts.

The lower leaves on a wavy leaf aster have leafy “wings” extending down the length of the petiole (leaf stem). The width of these wings can vary, but they almost always flare out where the petiole connects to the stem. Leaves closer to the top of the plant lack the petiole and simply wrap around the stem. The plants are typically 1 to 4 feet tall. Taller plants may lean due to the weight of the flowers. They can often be found growing in loose clumps with multiple plants relatively close together.

The lower leaves of wavy leaf aster have leafy “wings” running down the petiole (leaf stem). The wings can vary in width, but almost always flare at the base where the petiole connects to the stem. Photo credit: Owen Carson, cc-by-nc

Pollinator and Wildlife Uses:

Wavy leaf aster, like most of our asters, is highly attractive to a wide number of pollinators. Because it blooms so late, it can be an extremely valuable late-season source of nectar and pollen. Honey bees and many different species of native bees will gather nectar and pollen from the blooms. Butterflies and flower flies / hover flies will also drink nectar from the flowers. Wavy leaf aster is a host plant for pearl crescent caterpillars, as well as, many other caterpillars that feed on plants in the aster family.

Incorporating Wavy Leaf Aster into Your Yard

If you tend to hesitate when it comes to planting asters because your yard or garden doesn’t have full sun, then take a minute to look at wavy leaf aster. Unlike many of our asters, wavy leaf aster can grow well in partial shade. In the wild, it likes open woods and will disappear as the forest matures and the canopy closes in. This means planting wavy leaf aster in a partly shady area is fine, but make sure it gets at least a few hours of sun (or an extended period of dappled sun) every day. Don’t plant it in deep shade because it won’t survive in those conditions. On the other hand, it can take quite a bit of sun even though it likes part shade. I wouldn’t plant it in the middle of a giant field, but it can definitely take the sunnier side of part shade.

The upper leaves of wavy leaf aster lack a stem or petiole and simply wrap around the stem. Photo credit: jakelly, cc-by-nc

Wavy leaf aster is relatively tolerant when it comes to soils. It often grows in dry, rocky conditions in the wild. Thus, it can tolerate similar conditions (often considered “problem areas”) in your yard or garden. For example, a rocky, semi-shady bank that is a pain to mow might be an ideal place to consider filling with wavy leaf aster. In cultivated situations, wavy leaf aster can also grow well in medium moisture and slightly richer soils. Like most asters, if it starts to get too tall, then it can be trimmed back in early to mid-summer. (Think of the trimming as a little bit of artificial deer browsing. If you have a high deer population in your neighborhood, then they might take care of the trimming for you.)

It can sometimes be hard to find plants that bloom late in the season. Yet, these plants can be vital to bees, butterflies, and other nectar and/or pollen feeding insects that are still active in the fall. Wavy leaf aster is one potential solution to this problem and is worth considering for many pollinator gardens or native plant gardens in the eastern U.S.

Backyard Ecology: Exploring Nature in Your Backyard
Nature isn’t just “out there.” It’s all around us, including right outside our doors. Hi, my name is Shannon Trimboli, and I am the host of Backyard Ecology. I live in southcentral Kentucky and am a wildlife biologist, educator, author, beekeeper, and owner of a nursery specializing in plants for pollinators and wildlife conservation. I invite you to join me as we ignite our curiosity and natural wonder, explore our yards and communities, and improve our local pollinator and wildlife habitat. Learn more or subscribe to my email list at www.backyardecology.net.

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