All In the Family: Asteraceae

by Andrew Keys on April 14, 2010

Trust me, you know Asteraceae. Whether you know asters themselves or some Aster relative, you’d have to live under a rock not to know at least one plant from the aster family. Asteraceae is the second largest family of plants, second only to the orchid family, Orchidaceae. When last smart people counted, there were around 23,000 species of Asteraceae. That, children, is a lot of plants.

The aster family used to be called Compositae, or the Composite family, which is how old skool botanists describe the family’s distinct flowers. Personally, I like Asteraceae better, but I’m not botanist.

Let’s think about the aster family tree for just a minute. Lots of ‘em are pretty identifiable by those distinct flowers, but I bet there are asters you hadn’t thought of, like lettuce, for example. Aster! On the other end of the edible veggie spectrum, artichokes (Like cardoon!) are also in the Asteraceae family. Asters have made their way into popular culture too. Remember “Edelweiss,” from The Sound of Music? Yep. It’s an aster.

Two especially controversial asters are goldenrod, Solidago, and ragweed, which has the rather hilarious Latin misnomer Ambrosia, which means food of the gods. So… Greek gods ate ragweed? Wikipedia infers the namers of the plant were thinking in terms of immortality, and thus Ambrosia’s tenacity as a plant. At any rate, don’t ever let me catch you blaming goldenrod for your allergies! Though it DOES produce pollen and would make you sneeze if you snorted it, goldenrod is an insect-pollinated plant, and its pollen is too heavy and sticky to aerosolize and get breathed in by you as you go about your day. Ragweed, on the other hand, is a wind-pollinated plant, and it produces boatloads of pollen cursed by allergy sufferers everywhere.

But you know what? Ragweed is pretty nondescript. It blends into the background; people tend not to notice it it. What they DO see when they’re dying of hay fever is goldenrod -– sweet, pretty goldenrod, who’s just here to make fall nice and be a key plant for wildlife -– and goldenrod gets the blame for those allergies. Not true, folks. You are tasked with being a goldenrod ambassador! Let the goldenrod madness stop with you!

Here’s where I usually paste a slideshow of plants you’da never thought were in the aster family, but you know what? There are so many aster family members in my garden I love, we’re going to go that route today. Enjoy them.

And of course we can’t forget the infamous Kiss My Aster!

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