About this blog

This blog is my homework assignments for my herbal course Thirteen Moons Kitchen Herbcraft. My teacher is Herbalist Claire MacKay and her website is Herbal Heritage Scotland.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Meet Asteraceae! The Aster Family

Asteraceae family  Aster or Sunflower Family also know as the Composite family : Compositae
When first seen, the flowers of the plants in this family might first appear to be one single flower. They are actually a composite of many smaller flowers. The aster family has a different floral pattern from most other plant families. The sepals are actually bracts, which are often times in multiple layers. Each of the little tiny flowers that make up what appears to big one big flower, have their own little sepals, petals, pistils, and stamens. These little flowers are called disk flowers. The big “petals” are flowers, often infertile without pistil or stamen. Their proper name is ray flowers. Aster family plants have ray flowers, disk flowers, or both. One of the best clues for this family is to look for multiple layers of bracts under the flowers. There are frequently two or more layers. That and the presence of the presence of many tiny flowers inside what seems to be one flower are clues. Each seed is produced by a single tiny flower! Is it any wonder bees love the Aster family :)
The most distinct sub grouping of the Aster family is the Dandelion subfamily. Distinguishing features include a strap-shaped petal instead of the tapered edge like other flowers. These ray flowers often overlap all the way to the center of the flower. Most of the members of the Dandelion subfamily are edible, with a bitter milky juice that can be beneficial for digestion.
In my area examples would be, of course the dandelion Taraxacum officinale  Tonic, diuretic, and a bit aperient. Especially beneficial for the urinary organs, especially liver and kidney. Young leaves delicious prepared all sorts of ways. I like to fry up the flowers as a side dish and make jelly from them:)

beedandelion  Chicory – Cichorium intybus (note the two rows of bracts in the WikiMedia photo) Frequently found in disturbed soil, roadsides, fields, pastures. Native to Europe but it is widespread here also. Chicory flowers are lovely in salads and the ground roots can be used as a coffee substitute. These ground roots are a gentle bitter tonic, which increases bile production.
chicoryWild Lettuce – Lactuca serriola  note the dandelion like flowers in this WikiMedia photo. Another plant frequently found in disturbed, rocky spots. Also native to Europe. Lactuca canadensis is common here also. Native American Indians used the root for tea to treat heart and lung ailments, diarrhea, nausea and hemorrhaging, besides for pain relief. The bruised leaves were used to treat insect stings. A leaf tea was used to hasten milk flow after childbirth. These particular Lactuca’s don’t seem as strong in pain relieving qualities as the L. virosa I have tried. I frequently do a double strength tincture. straining the first go around and re-infusing with fresh plant material.
wild lettuce
The Artichoke Tribe is of the Aster subfamily. If you have identified a plant as belonging to the Aster family, and its head is inside a tight wrapping of bracts, (like an artichoke), then you have a member of the Artichoke Tribe! These plants usually have prickly parts, particularly the bracts around the flower heads. Often found in bitter formulas to stimulate digestion. An example around here would be Burdock – Arctium minus, one of the best blood purifiers. Look closely at this WikiMedia photo. See the prickly bracts wrapped tightly around the flower head?
burdock The next Tribe in the Aster subclass is the Ragweed Tribe. Ragweed flowers usually have male and female flowers appearing separately on the same plant, unisexual or monoecious.  Something unusual in the Aster family, making some of them easily confused with the Goosefoot family. The anthers are mostly separated from one another, instead of fused together like they are in other members of this family. Cocklebur - Xanthium strumarium canadense is an example in my area. Full to part sun, disturbed poorly drained soils are its favorite locales. Native Americans used the leaf tea as a blood tonic, in cases of diarrhea, kidney disease, arthritis, TB, and rheumatism, similar to uses found in TCM medicine. I have not myself used this plant.. maybe it is time to explore it further:) Note the separate male and female heads and the fused anthers in this photo from the Illinois Wildflower webpage.
common cocklebur
The Mutisia Tribe is not represented in my state. From the book Botany in a Day I find this description : “ The most distinctive feature of the Mutisia tribe of the Aster subfamily is that the disk flowers are irregular. Look closely and you will see a two-lipped flower with 2 petal lobes up and 3 petal lobes down. Also, the blossoms have no outer ring of petals (the ray flowers).”
the Everlasting Tribe -  If you have determined a plant belongs in the Aster family and it has papery, sometimes colored, bracts surrounding a flower with disk flowers, but no ray flowers, and this plant has grayish vegetation, you probably have a member of the Everlasting tribe. Inula is the only one of this tribe that has ray flowers. The bracts around the flowers are dry, translucent and thin, this is termed scarious. An example in my area would be Sweet Everlasting, Gnaphalium obtusifolium, aka Rabbit Tobacco. Common to open woods, prairies, fields and pasture throughout Illinois. Useful in colds and fevers and to quiet coughs.  The crushed leaves smell like maple syrup! Note the papery bracts in this WikiMedia photo
pearly everlasting
The Chamomile Tribe – The  plants in this tribe of the Aster family also have bracts around the flower base which are scarious, but less so than in the Everlasting Tribe. The main way to tell the difference is the Chamomile Tribe are aromatic. So if you have a plant you have determined is in the Aster family, it has scarious, translucent bracts and is aromatic, it is a member of the Chamomile Tribe/  Yarrow , Acnillea millefolium is an example in my area. Some of the ways it is used is for cold and fever.  It is a stimulant, astringent, diaphoretic, tonic, antiseptic, painkiller and a historical wound healer. Commonly found in disturbed sites, roadsides, pastures and fields. Native to Eurasia.
yarrowThe Boneset Tribe is our next tribe in the Aster subclass of the Aster Order. Their stigmas which are thickened at the end like a baseball bat, distinguish them from other composites. None of their blossoms are pure yellow, and they have no ray flowers, the petals that ring the flowers. Boneset, Eupatorium perfoliatum, a native plant. It is found in moist to wet ground, marshes, prairies, and along streams.  Native Americans considered it a panacea for all ills, so early settles called it “Indian Sage”. Boneset is a reference to the terribly painful, (I have had it with pneumonia), body aches that come with the flu, or in my case, pneumonia. It really does feel as if someone is taking a baseball bat to your leg bones, in my case!
boneset                                          ( Boneset from WikiMedia Commons)
The Ironweed Tribe plants look a lot like the Bonesets. You have to look at the shape of their stigmas, which are thread-like, long and hairy. None of the blossoms are yellow and they have no ray flowers, just like with Boneset. So you have to look at the stigmas to tell these two tribes apart, folks! Missouri Ironweed, Veronica missurica is common in our area. This showy purple flowered plant is commonly found in open woods, fields, prairies and road sides. I know of no medicinal uses..
ironweed                                       ( Ironweed courtesy of Purdue Education )
The Groundsel Tribe is our next one. They are distinguished from other members of the Aster family by the silky, soft quality of the pappus hair, the tuft of white hair that is around each little flower. This pappus, hair, is usually very abundant and very white. I have no groundsel tribe members in my area, but Coltsfoot would be an example, a plant I am trying to propagate…
The Sunflower, Aster and Sneezeweed Tribes. These tribes have many showy plants and can be hard to distinguish from one another. Pulling apart the flower head will show small bracts attached at the base of each disk flower in the Sunflower tribe. The other tribes here don’t have them. To distinguish Asters from Sneezeweeds you compare the layers of bracts surrounding the flower head. The Sneezeweeds have only one row of bracts, and definitely never more than three rows. Aster tribe plans have multiple layers of bracts of unequal length. Sneezeweeds often have glands or dots of resin on the leaves.
Sunflower tribe members are noticeably resinous. Echinacea purpurea is an example native to my area. It likes moist areas in prairies, open woods, floodplains that our wooded. Besides the usual of being known for stimulating the immune system for preventing and curing viral infections, the Plains Indians used the root to treat stomach cramps, toothaches, sore throats, distemper in their horses, snake bites and bee stings and headaches. Interestingly, some tribes discovered that Echinacea worked like a burn preventative, enabling the body to endure extreme heat. A close up of an Echinacea from WikiMedia…

The Sneezeweed Tribe, as was previously mentioned, mainly have only one layer of bracts, but never more than three, and often have resinous glands on their leaves. Sneezeweed, Helenium autumnale, is very common around here. Found in woods openings, fens, marshes, along streams, moist even wet ground in prairie. Some Native Americans dried the heads, crushed and inhaled to relieve colds. Others soaked the stems in water and then used this water to bathe a feverish patient.
sneezeweed                                           (Sneezeweed courtesy WikiMedia Commons )
The Aster Tribe is our next one. Goldenrod, Solidago ssp. is the most common example around here. Prairies, disturbed soil, open woods are just some of the places this plant will show up! In the not so long ago past, goldenrods were blamed by many allergy sufferers for their woes.. not true! It’s pollen isn’t wind blown, in fact, it is great for helping with allergy season symptoms! Some other uses for some of the different species found around here are Native American used a tea made from Tall Goldenrod for treating kidney problems, while chewing the crushed flowers was a treatment for sore throats.
 Now to work on four more families to complete this exercise!
Honey and Herbal Blessings to all who visit!

this blog post is for part of my assignment module 1 exercise 2

resources used:
Botany in a Day by Thomas Elpel
Illinois Wildflowers by Don Kurz

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