Saturday, November 14, 2009

Flaxleaf aster - Ionactis linariifolius

Diminutive flaxleaf aster (Ionactis linariifolius) was recently put in its own genus - after living quite happily as one of the many Aster spp. asters for a great many years previously.  Its new Latin name is rather easy to remember at least, because it refers directly to the plant itself.  "Ionactis" comes from its violet-colored ray flowers and "lineariifolius" describes its linear leaves that look something like the leaves of the flax plant.
I fell in love with this lovely little aster from first sight.
Flaxleaf aster has a great many wiry stems that arise from an almost woody knot-like base.  Over time, this plant spreads outward and increases in girth, but it is not aggressive.  Like other asters in Florida, it is deciduous and "disappears" during the late winter.  New growth is rapid in the spring.  The multiple stems are cloaked by the numerous needle-like leaves.  As this plant almost never exceeds 2 feet in height, these stems blend into the surrounding vegetation of the pineland understories where they most often occur.  But, on closer look, the foliage is quite beautiful and lends an extremely interesting aspect to the whole picture.
Blooming occurs in October and early November, though it may start by late September in some locations.  Its the flowers that make this aster so wonderful.  The ray petals are an extremely rich lavender in color and the tops of each stem may have numerous flowers open at any one time.  Because of that, entire regions of the understory may be awash with the beauty of this plant; making up for the fact that each bloom is only about 1 inch across.
Flaxleaf aster is native to sandhill and flatwoods habitats across much of the Panhandle and other parts of the Southeast Coastal Plain.  Where it occurs, it is a rather common component of the wiregrass-dominated understory - but, it is not found uniformly across all sandhills and flatwoods. 
To my knowledge, flaxleaf aster has never been offered by any of the nurseries affiliated with the Association of Florida Native Nurseries and I have found little information regarding its cultivation in the home landscape.  Hawthorn Hill is hoping to rectify this omission and is currently growing specimens in our Pinellas County nursery - with the hopes of learning more about it and eventually offering it to others.
Far too few of Florida's wonderful native asters are currently offered commercially and flaxleaf aster is one of the very special ones that deserves more attention.

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