Asters say ‘early fall’ best of all

I’d love October if for no other reason than the colorful wild asters that reach peak bloom this month. Along with their botanical cousins, the goldenrods, asters say “fall” better than any other wildflowers. Few of our native plants stand out in October like asters do.

Asters (Georgia has more than 25 species) are members of one of the world’s largest plant families, the composites, which also include sunflowers, goldenrods, daisies, thistles, coneflowers and others.

They are called composites because each flowerhead actually is composed of many smaller flowers — tiny tubular disk flowers in the center surrounded by larger, petal-like “ray flowers.” Depending on the species, an aster’s ray flowers may be pure white, dark blue or some shade in between.

Asters thrive in a variety of natural habitats. Some prefer dry woods and thickets; some like old fields; some are partial to open, moist areas. You’re just as likely, though, to find wild asters in unmowed meadows, on roadsides and in waste places.

Asters depend on bees, flies and butterflies to pollinate them. Their rich nectar is especially important as nourishment for fall migrating monarch butterflies, now moving through Georgia.

Some of Georgia’s common white-flowered asters include the white heath aster and the smooth white oldfield aster. Some blue to purple species include the eastern silvery aster and the late purple aster. A particularly showy blue bloomer is the New England aster.

The deepest purple color, though, belongs to the Georgia aster, which is a protected species in the state. Earlier this year, it narrowly missed being added to the federal endangered species list.

In the sky: A total lunar eclipse will be visible in Atlanta beginning at 5:14 a.m. Wednesday, said David Dundee, Tellus Science Museum astronomer. Full eclipse will occur around 6:55 a.m. We can't see the entire eclipse from beginning to end, however, because the full moon will set at 7:43 a.m, about an hour before the eclipse ends.

The annual Draconid meteor shower reaches a peak of about 20 meteors per hour Tuesday night. Look to the north throughout the night after dark. Unfortunately, the full moon’s light will interfere with the display.

Mars is low in the southwest at sunset and sets a few hours later. Jupiter rises out of the east a few hours after midnight. Saturn is very low in the southwest just after dark.