Aster’s place in the herbal garden has been a practical and joyful one, even though most of us have long ago forgotten that Aster carries an important medicine into our midst. This peppy, bright little flower is one of the garden’s best-kept secrets, having been largely forgotten as a medicinal herb and kept on as one of our favorite Fall bloomers, adding color and bright cheerfulness just as so many of the showstoppers are fading away. For the Pollinator Garden, Asters are the real showstoppers!
Asters as Medicine
Modern Herbalists no longer reach for Asters as quickly as our ancestors did. That’s a pity, but one we can so very easily rectify. Asters begin to bloom just as we need them, for they’re a boon to the lungs as we enter the Flu and Cold season. Traditionally, Asters were used in tea form to treat coughs in acute conditions – which means they’re terrific when you have a cold or flu that’s got you coughing a lot, particularly if the coughing is unhelpful, as is the case when your lungs are too dried out such that coughing isn’t actually expelling whatever’s got ‘em irritated.
Traditional Western Medicine and Asters
Aster was used as a nervine and lung remedy by Traditional Western Herbalists, often serving as a reliable remedy for easing lung conditions resulting from seasonal allergies and flu-cold sorts of acute conditions. The flowers were connected with opening the pores, thus being beneficial to fevers as well. The European uses of Aster were confirmed by Native American Medicine Tradition in the Americas, as well.
According to Jim McDonald, Native American peoples used the whole plant as a medicine for body and Spirit, including Aster in traditional smoking blends and blends for the Sweat Lodge. Aster is described as helping one open to the unconscious or deeper levels in healing; just as Aster helps us open our pores to allow the fever to release or bring balance to our lungs and allow coughing to recede, Aster helps us to open the doors to those deeper areas in our Spirit so that we can sort out and release what’s not working or bring balance to what is there.
In addition, Aster can be balancing or moving to the digestive system. In particular, it has been described as carminative because it can help one expel gas trapped in the large intestine or digestive system. While this use of Aster isn’t a primary one, it can be particularly helpful as we move into the heavier meals that come with the colder seasons. Taken a little a day as a bitter tonic before or after meals, Aster has the potential to help us prepare for and stay healthy during the cold months when flu and cold are at their strongest.
Traditional Western Herbalists and Native American Medicine Tradition alike make use of the whole Aster, flower, leaf, and root are used generally in tinctures, tea or decoctions both topically and internally for a variety of conditions. Chronic lung conditions, like asthma, can be treated with tea or tincture taken daily for the long-term. As noted in Traditional Chinese Medicine, Aster can be more balancing to the lungs, being neither too drying nor too demulcent. Jim McDonald notes that the more leaves you include in your preparation, the more demulcent the results. Thus, you can push your Aster remedies in the needed direction by varying the proportions of leaves to flowers to roots.
Traditional Chinese Medicine and Asters
In Traditional Chinese Herbalism, Aster roots, or zi wan, are considered acrid, bitter, and slightly warming with an affinity specifically for the lungs. Chinese Medicinal formulations stick to the roots of Aster, using them specifically for lung-related conditions. Aster is used to release coughing, expel phlegm, and balance Lung deficiency while improving urination. The action of Aster is described as dispersing and draining – it moves energy outward and downward. Aster enters the qi and blood aspects of the Lung channel.
Because Aster enters the blood, it has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine as a remedy for blood-related leakages, such as nosebleeds and other bleeding disorders. The downward energy of Aster helps move stuck energy down and out, thus making it a remedy for stuck urination as well as blood in the stools. Because it enters the qi, it has more of an affinity for moving energy from the lungs down and out, thus a diuretic-style action that helps to move toxins or wastes that have been stuck through the body’s normal channels of elimination.
Aster and Ayurveda
From an Ayurvedic perspective, Aster would be Vata balancing, fairly neutral to Kapha, and Pitta reducing. The positive and balancing aspect of Aster on Vata is fairly clear; Aster helps the lungs find balance when accosted by an external pathogen or irritant and Aster has a carminative effect on the lower digestive tract. Aster’s positive effect on the nervous system, particularly its ability to help calm convulsive states, also links it with Vata-balancing action.
As a Pitta-reducing herb, we see Aster helping reduce fevers and improve the flow of fluids and particularly blood through the body. Aster helps move energy down and out, improving our ability to digest as it goes, thus supporting the balance in Vata. Here, Aster is moving the primary energy of the body to transform out of Pitta’s sphere of influence and back into Vata’s control. Aster is highly transformative in this way.
As Aster helps the body move into balance, it tends to move stuck energy and help the body expel phlegm while maintaining a healthy moisture balance. This is why it could be seen as a Kapha-neutral herb. While Aster is helping Vata and Pitta to reconcile, it protects Kapha such that the body is ready to support well-being when the energies regain balance.
Aster in the Garden
Many varieties of Aster are used worldwide as medicinal. Generally, the stronger the scent (thus indicating more essential oils present) and stickier the flowers, the stronger the medicine. According to Jim McDonald, those Asters flowering in the blue to purple hues are particularly potent and are best made into fresh flower tincture or, better yet, used fresh straight-away. Some of the Aster species that are most commonly mentioned by herbalist include:
- A. novae-angliae or A. Symphyotrichum
- A. cordifolius
- A. puniceus
- A. aestivius
- A. tartaricus
- A. oblongifolius
Aster likes sunshine and well-drained, loamy soil. Too much water is problematic, as is too little. Folks living in especially damp areas can add extra sand or perlite to their soil to improve drainage. Folks in dry or drought-prone areas may want to water at least an inch or 2.5 cm per week. Beyond that, Aster is pretty hardy and low-maintenance.
Expect your first Asters to bloom straight away. Aster is a perennial that will self-seed and spread underground through the years. They’re perhaps not as aggressive as Spearmint, but they will try to take over your beds if you don’t contain them. Since they come in super short varieties as well as medium to tall ones, a bit of planning can turn that spreading habit into a potential benefit. Certainly, a healthy crop of Asters in your garden will contribute to a robust herbal pantry each year!