Updated: Oct 28, 2021
My husband has severe chronic asthma. He is entirely dependant on an inhaler and other asthma medications multiple times throughout the day. As an herbalist and believer that plants are the best medicine, I wanted to find the right herbs to help him. So I turned to the list of typical asthma herbs...osha root, mullein, yerba santa, licorice, and others. As we tried each herb, he felt it was beneficial but nothing was "the one". Not one of these herbs, nor a combination of them, helped him feel like he could leave the house without his inhaler.
That's when I encountered New England Aster. New England Aster is an upright perennial with purple or pinkish daisy-like flowers that bloom in late summer and autumn.
It can be found growing everywhere in the United States and Canada except for Florida, Louisiana, Texas, Arizona, Nevada, Idaho, Alberta, and Saskatchewan.
Identifying New England Aster is fairly simple when its in bloom. Just look for the purple/pinkish daisy looking flowers! It grows 3-7 feet tall. The leaves are alternate, rough, and hairy. The leaves have a smooth margin. The stem is fuzzy. Large, purple flowers with a yellow center mature from August to October. It's the flowers we want to use so no need to deeply study her in every phase of growth.
Once I encountered this fall blooming beauty I was immediately intrigued and wanted to learn all about her. Being an avid forager and an herbalist, I've realized quickly that many times the native plants I find are not in the 'popular herbs club' and are being under utilized, under taught, and under studied. New England Aster is the perfect example of this. She has an amazing capacity for the lungs and yet until I researched her myself, I didn't hear anything about her as we discussed lung health in my many herbal circles. A little googling told me there was very little information about her compared to commercially grown and internationally flown herbs that have inundated the modern herbal community. This gem is an easy to identify native growing nearly continent wide and we aren't using her as often as we should.
New England Aster is a lung plant if ever there is one. It is beneficial to both the upper and lower respiratory system. It works as a decongestant to relieve chest congestion. It is effective in removing phlegm and soothing phlegmy coughs. It is an effective
expectorant where other expectorants may fail. It works as an antispasmodic to relax the muscles in your lungs and widen the airways. It relaxes lung tension making it a best friend for asthma sufferers, as well as those with other lung issues such as seasonal allergies and colds.
It is also an excellent nervine being compared to and preferred over Valerian many times. It has a wonderful calming effect on the nervous system and herbalists have traditionally used it to treat nervous irritability, painful menstruation, rheumatism, and similar difficulties. The fresh flowers are reported to act as a sedative. However, I find that it's more calming than sedating. It's useful is releasing pent up tension in the body and promotes a relaxed and mellowed feeling. In this regard it makes an excellent helper for people battling the chronic tension in the body from post traumatic stress disorder as well. It helps ease the nervous system out of fight or flight and into a calmer state.
If you smell the blooms you will find they're full of volatile oils and have a strong scent. In my opinion, the blooms smell reminiscent to eucalyptus which is another hint to it's affinity for the lungs and congestion. Because it's full of volatile oils it also is considered to be carminative. Carminatives are useful for expelling excessive gas, relieving bloating, and aiding digestion.
Indigenious People have a rich history of knowledge and use of New England Aster we can admire and learn from. According to the herbalist Jim McDonald at https://www.herbcraft.org/aster.html, "... 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." This traditional Indegenious knowledge teaches us that New England Aster could be smoked as a decongestant or added to other smoking blends for medical use or pleasure.
If you're interested in other Indigenous uses I suggest you look at its references in the Native American Ethnobotany. http://naeb.brit.org/uses/search/?string=new+england+aster This plant has many other uses that can't be covered all at once.
The problem with wildcrafting New England Aster is that much too quickly after being picked its flowers want to puff out to seed. Similar to golden rod, it needs to be picked for drying when the flower is beginning its bloom to avoid a flowerhead full of puffy seeds once dried. Or use the plant in it's fresh state in a timely manner and reserve it's benefits with a tincture as opposed to having on hand as a dried herb.
To make a tincture combine one part fresh flower heads with two parts grain alcohol. Shake and store in a dark place for 4-6 weeks. Strain. For use, 10-20 drops as needed.
There are so many success stories of New England Aster's asthmatic benefits and calming effects. I am happy to announce that for my husband this plant was 'the one'. It majorly reduced his asthma struggles and inhaler dependence. And bonus, it helps his marriage by calming down his nervous irritability! 😂
I highly recommend growing this native plant. It is an important nectar source during fall when other sources are gone for the season. Vital pollinators such as bees and monarch's depend on them to survive. It's a stunning plant to add to your landscaping. But most importantly, it's an amazing source of medicine we can depend on right in our own yards. I love this plant. I think she outshines many of the other herbs we may be more familiar with. I hope you get to know this treasure of a plant for yourself!
Happy Growing! 🌿