Sunday, February 18, 2024

Florida Water Aster - Symphyotrichum fontinale

Florida water aster (Symphyotrichum fontinale) is an endemic perennial member of one of the most varied and important families of wildflowers in Florida (and North America).  This species occurs sporadically in Florida from Holmes County in the Panhandle to Miami-Dade and Monroe Counties at the southern tip of the state.  Although its distribution appears to be scattered based on herbarium records, it is likely to have been largely overlooked. This is an aster confined to sunny to partly sunny moist freshwater habitats - marsh edges, floodplains, and ditch banks, among others.

Throughout most of its range in Florida, it dies back to a basal rosette of leaves in the early winter and reemerges shortly after in early spring.  It eventually reaches a height of about 3 feet on a narrow upright stem.  The leaves are a rich green in color, linear in shape and moderately covered with stout hairs.  The stems are often more densely bristly.  The leaves are without a petiole, alternate on the stem, and the edges are largely without teeth (entire margins).

Flowering occurs in late fall.  Like most members of this genus, a great many ray petals surround a central head of yellow disc flowers. The ray petals can vary from nearly white to lavender.  They are produced atop the main stem and multiple side stems. Like other members of this genus, the flowers attract the attention of a wide diversity of pollinators. Although not specifically reported, it also likely serves as a host to the pearl crescent butterfly.

I have been collecting native Florida asters now for at least half a decade, but I have not seen this species in the wild nor ever seen it offered for sale by members of FANN - the Florida Association of Native Nurseries.  I suspect it behaves similarly to the widely distributed Elliott's aster, but it would be easily distinguished by its stark foliage differences. I'll be looking for it more purposely in the future.

The above photo was taken recently by my friend and skilled naturalist, Roger Hammer, and used with permission.

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