W.D. and Dolphia Bransford, courtesy Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
Robert L. Stone, courtesy Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
FLORA FACT: NATIVE POLLINATOR PLANTS
Tall aster and other fall flowers provide nectar for monarchs.
Because Texas lies between the principal breeding grounds of monarchs in the north and their overwintering areas in Mexico, these beautiful butterflies funnel through Texas in fall and spring.
During the fall, monarchs use two principal flyways. One traverses Texas in a 300-mile-wide path stretching from Wichita Falls to Eagle Pass. Monarchs enter the Texas portion of this flyway during the last days of September. By the third week of October, most have passed through into Mexico. The second flyway is situated along the Texas coast with migration lasting roughly from the third week of October to the middle of November.
Monarch numbers have been dropping dramatically in recent years, so it’s more important than ever to have plenty of fall flower nectar available for their stopover.
Willowleaf or tall aster (listed as a threatened species itself) provides food for monarchs each October and November.
This herbaceous, perennial plant is 1 to 3 feet tall, branching occasionally. The larger stems are occasionally reddish, and they have lines of white hairs. The tops of the leaves are light to medium green, while underneath, the leaves are whitish green with a network of fine veins. This unusual underside helps distinguish tall aster from other species.
Lots of abundant leafy bracts surround numerous daisy-like composite flowers less than an inch across. Each flower has 20-30 lavender or white ray florets surrounding numerous yellow disk florets that eventually become reddish purple. There’s no noticeable scent.
Many kinds of insects visit the flowers, including long-tongued bees, short-tongued bees, flies, butterflies and skippers. Wild turkeys eat the foliage and seeds to a limited extent. Deer browse on this plant occasionally, while rabbits nibble on the foliage of immature plants.