The Friends of the Wildflower Garden, Inc.

Plants of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden

The oldest public wildflower garden in the United States


Common Name
Red-stemmed Aster & Purplestem Aster (Swamp Aster, Aster Ponceau)


Scientific Name
Symphyotrichum puniceum (L.) A. Löve & D. Löve var. puniceum


Plant Family
Aster (Asteraceae)

Garden Location

  - wetland

Prime Season
Late Summer to Early Autumn



[As these two plants are now considered the same species, we will refer on this worksheet to both Red-stemmed and Purplestem Aster as Purplestem Aster] It is a tall erect, native, perennial with stems that are stout, to six feet high, hairy and reddish-purple, and branched to create the floral array of several to many loose open clusters. Stems are usually densely hairy, except sometimes smooth near the base. The upper part of the stems tend to be weaker and flexible.

The larger leaves have a few very shallow teeth and taper to a base that partially clasps the stem. Upper leaves will be smaller and without teeth. The upper surface is dark green when young, the underside is usually paler in color due dense hair on the veins. Leaf blades are longer than wide, lanceolate in shape (broadest in the lower half) some larger leaves may be more oblong-elliptic. Leaves are not dense on the stem and the lower leaves which are largest, fall away by flowering time.

The floral array is an open panicle form with panicle branches widely spreading to ascending. Leaves in the panicle are moderate to sparse.

Flowers: The open flowers are 1 to 1 1/2 inches wide and composed of two flower types - an outer group of 20 to 50+ ray florets with blue-violet to purple rays (seldom pink, sometimes white). These are pistillate and fertile. These surround a center of 30 to 50+ disc florets which have pale yellow tubular corolla tubes with 5 pointed lobes. These are bisexual, fertile, opening from the edge to the center and the corolla takes on a reddish tinge in mature flowers but not in newly opened ones. There are five stamens that tightly surround the style which has an appendage at its tip. Styles are exserted from the corolla when the flower opens. The flowerhead stalk has 0 to 3 green leafy bracts which graduate into the phyllaries which enclose the bell shaped flowerhead, usually in 4 to 6 series; these are long with spreading tips, generally linear to linear-lanceolate in shape with a center green zone. They may or may not have some fine hair on the surface.

Seed: Fertile flowers produce a 3 to 4 nerved purple to brown dry cypsela, 2.5 - 3.5 mm long, with white pappus attached for wind dispersion. The seeds require 60 days of cold stratification for germination.

Varieties: Two varieties of the species are accepted: var. puniceum and var. scabricaule. Only the former is found in Minnesota. The differences are in the size of the upper leaves and the amount of hair on the stem. See more extensive notes at the page bottom.


Habitat: Purplestem Aster prefers a moist soil base and full sun such as in marsh edges, stream edges and moist meadows. Standing water is not tolerated. It grows from a short rhizomatous root system, sometimes with long rhizomes and sometimes develops woody caudices.

Names: The older scientific name for this aster is Aster puniceus. All the new world asters, formerly in the genus Aster, have now been reclassified, most into the genus Symphyotrichum. The genus name is from the Greek symphysis, for 'junction', and 'trichos', for hair and, while obscure, it was first applied by Christian Gottfried Daniel Nees von Esenbeck in the 1800s in describing the type aster for the genus. The species name puniceum simply means 'reddish-purple'. The author names for the plant classification are: ‘A.Löve’ is for Áskell Löve (1916-1994) Icelandic botanist, co-founder of the Flora-Europaea project and professor at various universities in North America. ‘D.Löve’ is for Doris Löve (1918-2000), Swedish systematic botanist, active in the Arctic and collaborator with Áskell Löve on numerous publications. Together they updated the work of '(L.)' which refers to Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), Swedish botanist and the developer of the binomial nomenclature of modern taxonomy.

Comparisons: A similarly colored aster with large flowers and leaves that clasp is the New England Aster, but that species is found in more upland sites and has many more ray florets. A very similar aster is Glossy-leaved Aster, Symphyotrichum firmum. However, Flora of North America states that many attributions to this aster are in fact a smoother stemmed white flower version of S. puniceum and that more work is needed to verify the status of S. firmum. The University of Minnesota Herbarium on their Checklist (Ref. #28C) lists both species but with the same name - Purplestem Aster. USDA does not even list S. firmum as a separate species. There is no record of S. firmum having been planted by either Eloise Butler or Martha Crone.

See bottom of page for notes on the Garden's planting history, distribution in Minnesota and North America, lore and other references.

Inflorescence Drawing

Above: The floral array and upper stem. Drawing from Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. 3 vols. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York.

Below: 1st photo - The ray florets are many, long and thin. 2nd & 3rd photos - The stout, reddish, hairy stem with partially clasping leaves.

Red-stemmed Aster flower Red-stemmed Aster stem Stem detail

Below: 1st photo - The central disc florets have yellow corollas on newly opened flowers, turning reddish at maturity. 2nd photo - The long phyllaries of the flower head; below them are the longer leafy bracts.

Purplestem Aster group Purplestem aster phyllaries

White flowered version

Below: This species can also appear as a white flowered variety. Many characteristics are the same but usually the stem is smooth or with far less hair and can be reddish or just reddish near the stem nodes. It is most probably that these are the white flowered version of S. punicuem as discussed up above in the text.

Purplestem aster white variety Phyllaries Redstem aster white version stem

Below: 1st photo - The reddish tinge of the corollas of the mature disc florets is clearly visible. 2nd photo - the underside of the leaf. Note the fine hair on the midvein and the shallow teeth on the margin.

mature flower leaf underside

Below: An upper stem leaf and below it a larger mid-stem leaf. The bases partially clasp the stem. Lower stem leaves are longer, but fall away by flowering time.

stem leaf comparison


Notes: Purplestem Aster is indigenous to the Garden. Eloise Butler noted it in her Garden Log on Sept. 7, 1907, using the older name of Aster puniceus. An early reference to this plant in the Garden was contained in Eloise Butler's entry in the 33rd Report of the Board of Park Commissioners for 1915. She listed 19 asters as present in the Garden and two were of the Red-stemmed type. She noted them in bloom in 1914 and noted planting a white flowered version in 1917 that she collected within Glenwood Park (which partially surrounded the Garden and is now named Theodore Wirth Park). Another was added in 1932. Using the botanical name current at that time she listed them as Aster puniceus. She wrote: "Aster puniceus, the red-stemmed swamp aster, is nearly as showy as A. novae-angliae. The typical plants, tall and bushy, their flowers with narrow rays, deep blue or pale, or even white, with orange discs, look as if studded with stars." Purplestem Aster was listed on Martha Crone's 1951 inventory of plants in the Garden at that time and presumably has been in the Garden all this time. As this plant prefers moist soil, it is plant is native to most of Minnesota except counties in the drier west and SW. The plants range is generally from Minnesota east to the coast and most of subarctic Canada. It is endangered in several eastern states.

Varieties: There are two similar plants originally reported as native to those areas of Minnesota noted above; first the Red-stemmed Aster - Symphyotrichum puniceum (L.) A. Löve & D. Löve and then the Purple Stem - Smphyotrichum puniceum (L.) A. Löve & D. Löve var. puniceum. All major sources such as USDA, Minnesota DNR Checklist and the U of M Herbarium's Checklist of the Vascular Flora of Minnesota (Ref. #28C), and Flora of North America (Ref. #W7) now, based on the work of G. L. Nesom and the Löves, consider these to be one variable species and consolidate both colors into Symphyotrichum puniceum (L.) A. Löve & D. Löve var. puniceum. There is a recognized 2nd variety, var. scabricaule, which is confined to the inner plains of the Gulf Coast States.

Lore: There are a few references, such as Meeker (Ref. #26), that note the use of this plant by Native Americans, specifically the Ojibwa and the Iroquois. Densmore (Ref. #5), in her study of the White Earth Ojibwa is quite specific in that tendrils of the root were gathered and smoked with tobacco to create a "charm" to attract wild game. New England Aster was used for the same purpose.

References and site links

References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.

graphicIdentification booklet for most of the flowering forbs and small flowering shrubs of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. Details Here.