Jim McDonald Notes on Aster
New England Aster
One sunny fall day, while walking through a field on our way into the Michigan Renaissance Festival, my wife and I stopped at the edge of a small pond. Standing there on a rotting dock, I was, as is usual, looking around at all the blossoming flora, which included perhaps 5 different species of Aster. I thought, “Hmm..there seems to be a lot of this around these parts… I should figure out how to use this…”.
Seems, though, that almost nobody uses Aster anymore. There are very few references to it, and I’ve yet to meet a contemporary herbalist who’s worked with it (who hasn’t been prodded into it at my urging). So, in an attempt to foster an appreciation and renewed interest in this fine medicinal, here is what I’ve gleaned since I began studying various Aster species…
Jim Duke’s “Northeastern Indian Medicinal Plants” and Kelly Kindscher’s “Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie” both cover the uses of several species of Aster from an ethnobotanical point of view (Duke’s is very brief, Kindscher’s is much more elaborative), and it is clear that aster species were highly valued and commonly used by the tribes who shared common land. There seems to have been a universal reliance by Native American tribes on burning the flowers and leaves that is interesting, the smoke being used in Inipi (sweat lodge) Ceremonies, to revive the unconscious, to treat mental illness, nosebleeds, headaches, congestion, for smudging and as an additive to Kinnickkinnick smoking mixtures. The dried blossoms were also snuffed for similar purposes, or the vapor inhaled as a steam. Aster tea was used to treat earache, relieve gas pains, stomach aches, & fevers. The flowers and roots were both commonly used.
A fine prolific genus, we have nearly 100 species. Never before introduced in Materia Medica. I am indebted to Dr. Lawrence, of New Lebanon, for the following indications. Aster novae-angliae is deployed in decoction internally, with a strong decoction externally, in many eruptive diseases of the skin; it removes also the poisonous state of the skin caused by Rhus or Shumach.
A. Cordifolius is an excellent aromatic nervine in many cases preferable to Valerian. Many other species must be equally good, such as A. Puniceus and those with a strong scent; they ought to be tried as equivalents to Valerian in epilepsy, spasms, hysterics…
Aster puniceus… Stimulant and diaphoretic. The warm infusion may be used freely in colds, rheumatism, nervous debility, headache, pains in the stomach, dizziness, and menstrual irregularities. This, together with A. cordifolius, has been compared in value with valerian.
Aster aestivus…is recommended as an antispasmodic and alterative. Principally used in the cure of rheumatism in the form of infusion or tincture; recommended, however, in hysteria, chorea, epilepsy, spasms, irregular menstruation, etc., internally; and used both externally and internally in many cutaneous diseases, the eruption occasioned by the poison rhus, and in the bites of venomous snakes. Dose of the infusion, 1 to 4 fluid ounces; of a saturated tincture, 1/2 drachm to 2 drachms. This plant deserves further investigation.
Aster cordifolius…”an excellent aromatic nervine, in many cases preferable to valerian.” It is also reputed antispasmodic. The root is the part used. A decoction has been used in rheumatism.
Aster Novae-Angliae, Linné. New England aster. United States. A beautiful plant, especially when cultivated. It has rose-purple, occasionally white flowers. Used in skin eruptions and valuable for poisoning by poison sumach (Rafinesque, on authority of Dr. Lawrence).
Aster cordifolius… This plant was introduced to the profession by Prof. Rafinesque; and experience has confirmed the brief account he gave of it. The root is relaxant and aromatically stimulant, acting slowly and rather permanently. Its principal power is expended upon the nervous system; and it is used in hysteria, nervous irritability, painful menstruation, rheumatism, and similar difficulties to which caulophyllum is suited, but is more slowly relaxing than the latter article, and more properly in the class of the nervine tonics. It deserves more attention than it has received from the profession, and its abundance should secure for it a trial. It has been compared to valerian; but is less relaxing, and more aromatic than the latter plant.
The Aster puniceus is said to resemble the above. It grows in moist places; reaches a height of from four to seven feet, is usually purple-red on the south side of its stem, with its stalk furrowed, rough-hairy, and not so much branched as the cordifolius. Leaves oblong, clasping, slightly eared at the base. Flowers large and showy, with fifty to eighty rays in two rows–rays, lilac-blue, and long. I have not found it so agreeable a medicine; but more relaxing and permanent than the above species. It is sometimes called cocash and meadow scabish, though these names are given to other plants.
Traditional Chinese Medicine
Though I’ve not used it, a friend told me Aster Tartaricus is used similarly to what I’ve discovered aboutAster Novae-angliae (see below). Michael Tierra’s website lists it as a “Warming expectorant, relieves cough, expels phlegm. ” Bensky & Gamble’s Chinese Herbal Medicine Materia Medica classifies A. tartaricus (zi wan) as bitter and slightly warm, and states that it “relieves cough and expels phlegm: an important herb in stopping coughs of various etiologies. Primarily used for chronic cough, especially cold induced cough with copious sputum that is difficult to expectorate, or coughing of blood streaked sputum.”
This sounds very much akin to what I use New England Aster for… I don’t find it primarily bitter, however, but rather warming, slightly acrid and relaxant.
When I first decided to study the potential of Asters, I spent an entire fall walking around fields picking the blossoms from various Aster species, rubbing them between my fingers and smelling them. It became quickly apparent that (at least around here, in southeast Michigan) the deeper the hue of the flower, the more aromatic and sticky the flowers were, which suggested these to be the varieties most worth looking into; Rafinesque also suggested the potential usefulness of “those with a strong scent”. Traditional herbcraft also links blue/purple hued flowers with a sedative effect, suggested in the old texts.
Around these parts, the most abundant and “purplest” species is the new england aster, Aster novae-angliae. I began munching on these flowers as I walked, and they produced a distinct and decided “mellowing” effect: My pace got a bit slower, I felt like lying down and watching the clouds, and when I got back to work (I was on my lunch break the first time I tried this) it became quickly apparent that they werenot going to improve my productivity. The effect was not overtly sedative, but rather calming & relaxing. Subsequent tastings have reliably produced similar effects. This sedative action is most pronounced when the fresh blossoms are eaten; even a fresh flower tincture is much milder in action, compared the eating the blossoms.
I then picked and dried several flowers to burn over coals and add to some tobacco. The smoke was aromatic, and, as one would expect from a plant high in essential oils and/or resins, did produce a sort of “buzz”… there was a peculiar quality to it (perhaps one could say it “clears the head”). Whether this means it’s psychoactive or decongestant, I’ll leave up to interpretation. Not being congested, or having sinus problems, I can’t vouch for its effectiveness in those areas. I’ve ruled out trying to intentionally give myself a headache to see if the smoke will relieve it, and haven’t yet figured out how to inhale it when I’m sleeping to see if it wakes me up. I have, however, noted that the flowers, used as a steam inhalation, clear the sinuses and dispel congestion with an incredible efficacy. The dried blossoms smooth out the flavor of Tobacco, though I feel they blend more harmoniously with a “greener” smoke.
It’s interesting to note that another species of aster (it had cream/white flowers but I never keyed it out), when the fresh blossoms were heated on a hot coal produced a scent strikingly reminiscent of chocolate cupcakes just come out of the oven. I mentioned this recently to a beekeeper, and he said that he’s also noted such a scent emanating from his hives when they bees are working aster honey, but said that it isn’t there when the honey is finished. Hmm.
In early winter of that first year of study, I sought out some dead new england aster stalks and gathered about a half dozen roots to tincture, 1:2, in grain alcohol. The roots are small, and so I made barely two ounces of extract. After a few months of maceration, I began working with the plant. Initially, my focus was on aster’s sedative effects, and I can verify these are present, though of a more mild, tonic nature than seemed suggested by its comparison to valerian… more of a “calmative” than a “sedative”. I also believe that the roots were not as strong in this regard as the flowers. The following year, I prepared a fresh flower extract, and verified this… I find the flower tincture preferable in every aspect, and have noted the flavor seems “fuller” than the root tincture. Also, from a practical perspective, the roots are rather small and the flower tops are more easily collected, and using the flowers doesn’t take the plants life.
A tincture of the fresh flowering tops of new england aster seemed clearly indicated as a respiratory remedy, being uniquely clearing, relaxing & decongesting to the head & lungs. This effect is readily apparent when taking a bit of the tincture; the effects aren’t subtle and can be easily perceived. It seems to act very effectively to break up stuffy lung and (to as lesser extent)sinus congestion, though as it’s not especially astringent, it doesn’t stop a drippy nose as well as, say, goldenrod. It is, however, uniquely antispasmodic for the lung tissue; it relaxes and dilates the respiratory passages. My friend Mary verified this shortly after I began using the plant, making a tea of the fresh plant for a friend with asthma, who noted marked relief which extended into the next day. In the numerous years that have followed, I have repeatedly (though of course not always) seen this… use of aster tincture offers a lasting (and seemingly cumulative) effect and can often lessen a person’s dependence on their inhaler. I’ve on several occasions seen people who used their inhalers several times a day be able to reduce to once a day or less. As a respiratory relaxant, I think of using new england aster when tension is “quivery” and irritable, whether such a state is acute or chronic. It’s less valuable in treating severe spasm states than it is in preventing severe spasm states. I picture quivery, shivery, shuddery lungs which, if they shudder just enough, trigger coughing or asthma or whatever baleful respiratory woe the afflicted is predisposed to. This falls in line with the experience of herbalist Sean Donahue, who writes of new england aster, “A tincture made from the flowering tops can immediately relieve muscle constriction around the airways. I tend to use about 15 drops in acute situations – most effective when the is tightness around the airway that signals that an attack is imminent but spasms have not begun.”
Another story was shared with me by Pete Bianco…
My Aunt has asthma and has been prescribed Advair. She wanted to use a plant to treat her asthma instead of the inhaler. I gave her new england aster tincture and told her to fill the dropper with as much as on squeeze of the bulb produces. She now is using this twice a day. She said she could use it three times a day but doesn’t. She takes it in the morning at and it lasts 6-7 hours. She can’t take it as often as she needs it because she is a nurse and her schedule doesn’t allow. She has had no acute attacks since she has been using the tincture. Before this she had coughing shortness of breath and had acute attacks daily. Her asthma is aggravated by talking, cold weather, & particulate irritants. At work rooms and hallways are filled with chemicals fumes from hospital disinfectants. She has only been using the aster a couple of weeks so far. (time passes) I recently called her, it has been a couple months since she started using the tincture, she told me she is now only using it once every four days. Her co-workers noticed she is not suffering as she used to.
Such results are not limited to asthma; milder conditions (your run of the mill winter cold with irritable spasmodic coughing) and more serious states can also be affected. A friend from Henriette Kress’sherblist posted this account of its use in emphysema…
“The plant is very abundant here in Upstate New York and it’s blooming like crazy right now so I spent a couple of hours this morning walking the back meadows on the land where I live gathering the flower tops. Because of emphysema I try never to leave the house without my trusty rescue inhaler for those unexpected little seize-ups this condition springs on you. – Anyway about half way through my walk I started to feel the shortness of breath and tightness in my chest that always has me grabbing my inhaler and doing a couple of puffs – I reach into my collection bag and guess what – No Inhaler – Damn!
Remembering what you wrote about it being a respiratory aid I quickly ate about 10 of the flowertops – in less than a minute the shortness of breath and the tightness in my chest started to ease up. After another 5 minutes (spent mostly staring at clouds..:)) I was able to continue my walk with no further problems…:)
I decided to put it to the test by not doing my morning puffs on the trusty inhaler. Instead I made up some tea using 3 tsp of the dried flowers in a large cup of very hot water. While this was steeping I walked down the hill to the mailbox and back – as expected this resulted in the typical shortness of breath and tightness in the chest that goes with an “attack”. I drank down the tea and, as with eating the fresh flowers, within a very short time the shortness of breath was better and my lungs felt very “relaxed”. Relieved a headache I had all morning too…:).”
Let me be clear here: I’m not trying to allude that new england aster is “a cure for emphysema”. This is a complicated and severe condition that can involve the destruction of respiratory tissue – such tissue will likely have lost the ability to respond to herbs (there are always, of course, inexplicable cases). Let us, however, not undervalue the immense benefit received in this case… the results obtained were truly quite remarkable. Also, please do note that I do not recommend completely abandoning inhalers; a severe and uncontrollable asthma attack can present imminent danger, and it makes sense to have access to something that could perhaps be seen as a “big gun” if the aster doesn’t offer enough relief. But to be able to markedly cut down on the use of inhalers use is no small accomplishment, and worthy of wider exploration.
Not relegated only to serious conditions, it’s great for a head cold, and great when a chest cold has your lungs sort of quivering and that’s instigating your cough. If the top of the lungs seem very tight, hot and dry, it’d do much good combined with fresh Wild Lettuce tincture. Combined with Plantain, its quite useful in addressing irritation right at the windpipe that’s causing irritating coughing and throat clearing. It’s nice with Mullein, too, especially if you can hear a bit of hollow wheeze in the cough. Sean Donahue suggests combining it with solomon’s plume (Smilacina racemosa), which he feels works to relax connective tissue surrounding the lungs through restoring pliability. I’ve found it to work rather well in relieving that cough you get when you go outside in the winter (cold/damp) to shovel the snow or otherwise engage in some vigorous physical activity and then come back into a warm house (hot/dry). On a few occasions I’ve seen a single dose completely resolve coughs that linger after the acute phase of a cold has passed. A woman I worked with had a cough that had been lingering for over a month after she’d thought she had “gotten over” her cold. I overheard her say she’d “do anything” to get rid of it, and offered a squirt of Aster tincture. She trepidatiously agreed, and the cough was gone by the end of the day, and did not return (that’s one dose of about 15-20 drops). On another occasion, my wife had a cough, but no other symptoms, keeping her (well, us, really) awake at night. Again, one dose of Aster completely resolved the cough, and helped us both fall quickly asleep. I have, I admit, used it for coughs and had it do no good at all (albeit rarely, and in such cases I’m inclined to think that the tension I supposed was actually stiffness/tightness due to dry tissues), but believe it certainly works as well as – or better – than many of our more common pulmonary remedies. I have also noted that the flowers, used as a steam inhalation, clear the sinuses and dispel congestion quite efficaciously.
I’ve used the dried flowering tops as an infusion, though it should be said the plant is a pain in the tail to dry… the flowers start to go to seed immediately when picked. I’ve seem those purple flowers turn into white fluffy seeds within four hours. Nevertheless, the seed fluff & upper leaves still work. New england aster is an effective diaphoretic, and a hot tea will promote a gentle perspiration that helps address colds, flus and fevers (Alabama herbalist Phyllis Light has shared that southern folk herbalists use many species of aster as diaphoretics). I generally add a bit of fresh flower tincture to a hot infusion of the dried flowering tops, and use this for fevers with respiratory tension combined with an agitated disposition… it’s a relaxing diaphoretic.. On one early occasion when I used it occasion I had a doosey of a fever, characterized by an unrelenting agitation; though I knew I needed to lay down and rest, I was far too restless to do so, and kept jumping up to do this or that; or to do nothing. I’d get halfway across the room before it was clear I was far to sick to be up doing anything, and I’d go back and lay down (then in a couple minutes I’d get up again… repeat ad infinitum). A hot infusion not only opened the pores to promote sweating, but also lowered the agitation several notches, allowing me to get to sleep (though I did fall asleep with a half full cup of tea sitting on my chest, which woke me up when I later rolled over). Curiously, I’ve noted on three occasions that when a sore throat accompanied the fever, it completely resolved within seconds of using new england aster (both the tea and the tincture have yielded these results). I’ve tried it on sore throats without a fever flu present, and not seen this immediate effect… I’m not sure what to make of it. Hopefully future observations will provide some indications to go on.
As one would expect from a plant so high in volatile oils, it is also an effective carminative. A friend, who wished to taste it, immediately eliminated gas. Rather than be embarrassed, she said… “that feels better…”
(but that we could all be so unabashed…)
There is so much potential in this herb that it’s a miracle its escaped widespread use for so long. I urge you to follow the prompting of Felter & Lloyd, who comment: “This plant deserves further investigation.”
… then let me know what you find out, k?
© jim mcdonald
Ah… in the spirit of that last line: Kiva Rose Hardin has been using a local southwest aster called purple sticky aster (really; that’s its common name), Dieteria bigelovii. Her experiences have pretty much been spot on with mine; shewrites that she has “seen a simple of Aster flower tincture both reduce and eliminate the need for inhalers during allergy and fire season. I’ve also seen it dramatically reduce chest tension, wheezing and shortness of breath in those with mild to moderate asthma during exposure to wildfire smoke. This often works well both symptomatically and long term.”