Asters ft. New England Aster – Symphyotrichum SPP.: Edible & Medicinal Uses of the “Move Over, Mums”

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In Chippewa, there’s name’g osibug meaning “sturgeon leaf”, referring to an aster that was served with fish. New England asters (symphyotrichum novae-angliae) names include wini’sikens and waanisikensiwang. Asters are all-stars for pollinators and they’re also somewhat edible and medicinal.

The American asters (symphyotrichum spp. formerly included in aster spp.) are native to the Americas. A single species, s. ciliatum, is also native to eastern Eurasia. We are fortunate to have many of these late summer and autumn blooming, wildlife supporting all-stars. Some are truly native to our province, some are near native but still “American”. There are 31 mostly native species noted on iNaturalist for Ontario.

In Algonquin park, white panicled (s. lanceolatum) and purple stemmed AKA swamp aster (s. puniceum) are most common. Around Haliburton, heart leaved AKA common blue wood aster (s. cordifolium) and tall white (s. lanceolatum) are most common, along with the somewhat reclassified flat-topped (doellingeria umbellata) and large-leaved asters (eurybia macrophylla). I see all of these in colonies along roadsides and trails, or in meadows.

Some fairly common asters here are purple-stemmed (s. puniceum) and northern bog aster (s. boreale). And perhaps New England aster (s. novae-angliae) is a little more prevalent since Haliburton Flora was compiled. Uncommon and rare asters include white heath aster (s. ericoides), which I’ve only seen in one patch at the 100 acre, Lindley’s AKA fringed blue (s. ciliolatum), shining (s. firmum), calico (s. lateriflorum), and whorled or acuminate aster (oclemena acuminata), and possibly a few more.

Along whatever road or trail you’re hiking around the onset of Autumn, white, purple, pink or blue flowering asters should be abuzz there.

Common Blue Wood Aster -
Symphyotrichum Cordifolium
Common Blue Wood Aster –
Symphyotrichum Cordifolium

I have 100s of pictures of our local asters and their pollinator allies. The viewing starts in late summer. Later as Autumn arrives, New England Aster and white heath aster are some of our last local flowers to bloom. And usually some of the blue wood aster holds on until the frosts hit hard a few times.

New England Aster -
Symphyotrichum Novae-angliae
New England Aster –
Symphyotrichum Novae-angliae
Flat-topped Aster - Symphyotrichum Umbellatus, Now Doellingeria Umbellata
Flat-topped Aster – Symphyotrichum Umbellatus, Now Doellingeria Umbellata
White Heath Aster - 
Symphyotrichum Ericoides
White Heath Aster –
Symphyotrichum Ericoides
(Look up its lookalike, Rayless aster, if you want to see something different!)
Panicled Aster - 
Symphyotrichum Lanceolatum
Panicled Aster –
Symphyotrichum Lanceolatum

Mums are traditionally associated with the fall season and Thanksgiving, but asters deserve the spotlight here.

Edible Uses of Asters ft. New England Aster

Many asters have edible young leaves, best chopped or cooked. And edible flowers fresh or dried. New England aster is one example.

The dried leaves and flowers of New England aster make a mild tea, so you may want to add a more flavourful herb like mint.

Medicinal Uses of Asters ft. New England Aster

New England Aster is primarily said to support these body systems:

  • Digestive
  • Integumentary
  • Nervous
  • Respiratory

Medicinal tags include Antispasmodic, Carminative, Diaphoretic, Expectorant, Mucilage, and Nervine. See Medicinal tag key for more information.

Common usage includes a tincture for upper and lower respiratory support to help break up dry congestion. The flower tops and roots have both been used. As a respiratory relaxant, it may work well with lobelia inflata for conditions like asthma, with the supervision of a qualified herbalist.

The deep purple blooms have a sedative action similar to valerian.

Purple stemmed (s. puniceum) and flat-topped white (doellingeria umbellata) asters have similar uses.

Alternative Uses of American Asters

The dried flowers are a pretty addition to potpourri.

Chrysanthemums are popular here for autumn or Thanksgiving decor, but they are nonnative to North America. Native, non-cultivator asters, however, are similar looking and can be planted after being on display in a pot like a mum. If I could change one thing about October it’d be to replace mums with asters! Consider planting a new kind every October and sharing with friends!

New England aster (symphyotrichum novae-angliae)
New England aster (symphyotrichum novae-angliae)

Growing Symphyotrichum SPP.

There’s an aster for almost every landscaping situation. You can find an outline from one of Ontario’s native plant nurseries here: Native Asters for Ontario Gardens. At garden centres, many of the plants will be cultivators. To get the most beneficial plants for pollinators and other wildlife, make sure you’re not accidentally buying cultivators. Native plant nurseries usually have multiple species to choose from.

Various crescent butterflies are some of the many insects that will host on your asters. Many moths, butterflies, bees (including specialist mining bees) and other wildlife will enjoy them too. New England is an especially smart pick for landscaping, because it’s one of our last blooming flowers. It’ll provide nectar for the monarchs that are lagging behind on their migration south.

You can cut your asters back in mid summer before they bloom for bushier plants. Order from nurseries, divide in spring or start from seed. Eventually you’ll have volunteers!

A natural companion plant for them is native goldenrod. Shadier asters will look nice with spikenards and non-evergreen ferns, which will be turning their golden autumn colours as the asters bloom. I made the mistake of planting my New England aster with scarlet bee balm, which crowded it out, so some planning is needed for pollinator gardens. Most asters will do well along paths in your landscaping where there is no aggressive competition. Asters are also one of the local plants that should just show up if you go the no mow route in your creating habitat journey.


And the Usual Cautions:

1) Most medicinal herbs, if edible, are meant to be eaten in moderation, even sparingly. Some require extra preparation.

2) People can be allergic or sensitive to nearly any plant; try new herbs one at a time at your own risk.

3) For medicinal use, I must recommend receiving a diagnosis and working with a reputed health care provider. I generally do not post specific treatments and dosages because I think that is best between you and your health care provider, and ideally monitored.

4) Anyone pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription drugs should talk to a health care professional before adding new food items to their diet.

5) Many plants have look-a-likes, and sometimes they are poisonous.

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For a more thorough read on the medicinal uses of various asters, see this aster article by herbalist Jim McDonald.


How Indians Use Wild Plants for Food, Medicine & Crafts (Native American)

Edible and Medicinal Plants of Canada

Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants: A Historical Survey with Special Reference to the Eastern Indian Tribes

Planting the Future: Saving Our Medicinal Herbs

The Herb Book: The Most Complete Catalog of Herbs Ever Published (Dover Cookbooks)

Northeast Foraging: 120 Wild and Flavorful Edibles from Beach Plums to Wineberries (Regional Foraging Series)

100 Easy-to-Grow Native Plants for Canadian Gardens

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