Symphyotrichum pilosum (Awl Aster)

Plant Info
Also known as: Frost Aster, Hairy White Oldfield Aster
Family:Asteraceae (Aster)
Life cycle:perennial
Habitat:part shade, sun; average to dry sandy or rocky soil; disturbed soil, fields, prairies, open woods, railroads, roadsides, bluffs, cliffs
Bloom season:August - October
Plant height:1 to 5 feet
Wetland Indicator Status:GP: FACU MW: FACU NCNE: FACU
MN county distribution (click map to enlarge):Minnesota county distribution map
National distribution (click map to enlarge):National distribution map

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Detailed Information

Flower: Flower shape: 7+petals Cluster type: panicle Cluster type: raceme

[photo of flowers] Branching clusters of stalked flowers at the top of the stem and arising from upper leaf axils. Branches are widely spreading, arching or ascending, with flowers usually all on one side of the branch (secund). Flowers are ½ to ¾ inch across with 15 to 35 petals (ray flowers) and a yellow center disk that turns reddish with age. Ray color is white, rarely pinkish or pale violet.

[photo of bracts (phyllaries) and flowers on one side of a branch (secund)] The bracts (phyllaries) surrounding the base of the flower are in 4 to 6 layers, appressed to slightly spreading, mostly light green with a long, darker green tip that may have a few hairs around the edge. The phyllary edges are often rolled under giving the green tip a very slender appearance; surfaces are hairless to sparsely minutely hairy. Flower stalks are ¼ to 1¼ inch long and spreading-hairy, with a few hairy, linear bracts below a flower. Phyllaries and bracts have a minute spine at the tip.

Leaves and stems: Leaf attachment: alternate Leaf attachment: basal Leaf type: simple

[photo of leaves] Leaves are mostly lance-elliptic to lance-linear, sometimes widest above the middle, 1 to 4 inches long, up to 1 inch wide, toothless or shallowly toothed, pointed at the tip, stalkless or nearly so, typically with fairly large clusters of small leaves (fascicles) in the axils. Basal leaves are more spatula-shaped, rounded at the tip, with winged, sheathing stalks; basal and the lowest stem leaves wither away by flowering time.

[photo of stem and leaf hairs] Leaf surfaces are sparsely to densely covered in long, spreading hairs, with shorter hairs all around the leaf edge. Stems are single or multiple from the base, ascending to erect, densely covered in long, spreading hairs.

Fruit: Fruit type: seed with plume

 Fruit is a dry seed with a tuft of white hairs to carry it off in the wind.


Considered weedy in some parts of the country, Awl Aster can pop up in the disturbed soils of roadsides, shores, old fields and pastures. There are a number of asters with small, white flowers in Minnesota and it can be a real challenge to keep them straight. Awl Aster is distinguished by a combination of characteristics: ½ to ¾-inch flowers with 15 to 35 rays, typically arranged all on 1 side of a branch (secund), phyllaries with rolled edges and a minute spine the tip, (usually) long spreading hairs on stems and leaf surfaces, and relatively large clusters of small leaves (fascicles) in many leaf axils. By comparison with other white asters having a generally similar leaf shape, Calico Aster (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum) and Ontario Aster (S. ontarionis) may have similar branching, but flowers not more than ½ inch across. Calico Aster also has flowers with only 9 to 15 rays, a pale center disk (not bright yellow), and leaves with short hairs only along the midvein; Ontario Aster flower stalks are not more than 1/3 inch long and phyllaries are more oblong and do not have rolled edges or a spine at the tip. Northern Bog Aster (S. boreale) and Panicled Aster (S. lanceolatum) leaves are hairless except around the edges and have only lines of hairs on stems. Awl Aster was once treated as a variety of Heath Aster (S. ericoides), which, like Awl Aster, has a spine at the tip of bracts and may also be secund, but is easily distinguished by the smaller linear leaves, broader, flat, flaring phyllaries with a larger spine, and appressed to ascending hairs on stems, where Awl Aster has spreading hairs.

There are 2 recognized varieties of S. pilosum: var. pringlei, which is essentially hairless or hairy in lines and is found from Nova Scotia west to Wisconsin and south to North Carolina (it is reputedly in Minnesota though no records exist at the Bell Herbarium); var. pilosum is densely hairy as described above. The common name “Awl” comes from the shape of the phyllaries that have rolled edges.

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More photos

Photos by K. Chayka taken at Shooting Star Prairie SNA, Mower County, and Battle Creek Park, Ramsey County. Photos courtesy Peter M. Dziuk taken in Ramsey County and at Louisville Swamp, Scott County.


Have you seen this plant in Minnesota, or have any other comments about it?

Posted by: Terry S - Minneapolis
on: 2017-10-10 02:25:03

According to the MichiganFlora, basal rosettes are usually present at flowering; FNA is a little more specific, stating that the basal rosettes wither by flowering but are replaced by new vernal rosettes. Most people aren't going to pay attention to the difference -- whether the basal rosette seen at flowering is the current year's or the following year's. I observed this on my specimens. Also, according to FNA, the apices of these basal leaves may be obtuse or rounded, which I've also observed. (I am referring to garden specimens.)

Posted by: Dennis M - Wisconsin
on: 2018-01-02 12:31:16

I have read a book titled "The Winnebago Tribe" written by Paul Radin. He is an anthropologist who studied the Winnebago (Ho-Chunk) people from 1908 - 1913. He mentioned that one of the plants they foraged was one called the "awl plant." Do you know if the Awl Aster was ever used by native people for food. According to Paul Radin the roots of the "awl plant" were all that were eaten. Thank you for your comments. Dennis

Posted by: K. Chayka
on: 2018-01-02 15:00:20

Common names are notoriously problematic for researching plant information, since one species may go by many common names and some common names apply to multiple species, so the plant referred to in the book could have been almost anything. Even so, we don't have any knowledge of Native American uses for this species. Sorry we can't be more help.

Posted by: Lindsay - Kenyon
on: 2020-08-26 20:47:20

I have this growing at my dads house next to his house in a corner area garden that has only in previous years had columbine and larkspur that was intentionally planted. This aster could have been there other years but been pulled as a weed? It is currently over 4 feet tall and just now having flowers open. (August 25, 2020)

Posted by: bonnie harma - tower, mn
on: 2023-05-01 19:54:31

We have something like this up here. I haven't checked lookalikes but whichever it is, it attracts swarms of pollinators. Bees, wasps etc. in Aug.

Posted by: K Chayka
on: 2023-05-02 07:50:39

Bonnie, chances are it's panicled aster, Symphyotrichum lanceolatum, which is common across the state. It's similar but not as hairy.

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