Purple Haze: The Resinous Medicine of Aster Rhizome, Leaf, and Flower
Common Names: Purple Sticky Aster, Bigelow’s Spine Aster, also Douglas Aster, New England Aster, etc.,
Taste: Bitter, sweet, aromatic
Impression: Oily, aromatic
Energetics: Slightly warm, Moistening in the oily sense
Actions: Aromatic (and thus, Carminative), Relaxant Diaphoretic, Expectorant
Specific Indications: Lung deficiency, Cough with cold signs, Asthma with tension and spasmodic coughing/wheezing, Cough initiated by cold/flu onset with tension
I first learned of this beautiful medicine from Jim McDonald through his work with the very similar New England Aster, which in turn led me to look for a local plant with similar qualities. Many SW herbalists just shrugged their shoulders at me and pointed to the nearest Grindelia patch, but as much as I love Gumweed, these fragrant purple asters are their own special bit of magic.
Here in the mountains of New Mexico, the Purple Sticky Aster creates a sweet smelling lavender flower mist across the mesas, especially beneath the blue-green boughs of the Juniper trees. It’s well named and sticky enough that the flowers or flower buds can stick firmly to one’s clothing or leave an oily yet glue-like coating on the fingers after petting a flower or leaf.
In the Gila bioregion of southwest New Mexico, this is a plant of middle to upper elevations, and I have not seen it outside of the mountains. It tends to flower primarily from mid-September to the first frost in my area, and sometimes even persisting through light frosts for some weeks. A working knowledge of field botany is very helpful here, as the Asteraceae are abundant as well as abundantly confusing, especially given the taxonomy changes made within the last decade. I’ve watched many people repeatedly confuse the different species, and sometimes even begin to harvest the wrong plant because they weren’t being sensorily aware, and didn’t notice they were picking a similar looking but much less resinous Machaeranthera species. A visual characteristic that makes this plant somewhat easier to identify are its distrinctive glandular phyllaries, seen on the underside of the flower. In general though, the stick resin the plant exudates through its glands are the easiest way to distinguish it from other purple rayed, aster-like flowers in this region.
While the most commonly used, and well notated, species used medicinally among Western herbalists in North America is the New England Aster, our local Dieteria bigelovii is resinous, aromatic, and also well suited to the job. I haven’t experimented much outside these two species, especially since I haven’t found any other local species that exhibit anywhere near the same amount of sticky resin as the Dieteria.
Finding the Breath: Aster as Respiratory Remedy
Clinically, I have observed 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.
Thus far, I have seen this remedy be most specific to respiratory tension with a feeling of pressure and constriction, sometimes accompanied by spasmodic coughing and a tickly throat. It can dramatically relax that claustrophobic tightening sensation in the chest that’s about to turn into an asthma attack or full on coughing/wheezing fit. I find it an exceptionally important medicine in the treatment of mild to moderate asthma, especially childhood onset asthma where there is a tendency to tension and attacks triggered by emotional stress.
As Jim McDonald says of New England Aster:
“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.”
This seems equally true of our local Purple Sticky Aster, which smells like a cross between Lavender and some sort of sticky baby shampoo. This has been a primary remedy of mine in many respiratory cases with symptoms of tension and congestion both in the cold season’s bronchitis and related respiratory distress as well as the annual fire season.
I have used it in combination with Elecampane and Grindelia in strep throat, and while the other two herbs are probably more active in reducing microbial overproliferation, the Aster is definitely soothing and relaxing, especially if there is a concurrent cough, fever, or respiratory tension. It is most useful if used in the early stages of the infection, rather than waiting until the affliction is at its worst.
Aster is also considered a fundamental respiratory medicine that has been used for over two millennia in China. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the roots/rhizomes of Aster tataricus (Purple Aster/Zi Wan) are specifically used to resolve excess phlegm and stop coughs,. This is more specifically true where there is a cough related to viral onset (usually cold/flu) associated with lung deficiency. In such cases, I find the herb to be especially helpful when formulated with Western Spikenard (Aralia racemosa, although it’s likely other species in the same genus would work as well) berries and rhizomes. I consider the combination of Aralia and Aster to be one of our most important native herb combinations for treating almost almost any case of lung deficiency, particularly in preparations that include honey, such as in elixirs or honey frying.
Fever Tea: Aster as Relaxant Diaphoretic
Sticky Aster and New England Aster are gentle relaxant diaphoretics, particularly indicated where there’s irritability, tension, and the inability to relax. This means that a hot tea/infusion of Aster will relax the circulatory system in such a way that it allows for enhanced peripheral circulation. In turn, this will increase the ability of the immune system to prevent or deal with microbial overproliferation in cold/flu (or other viral crud).
The Alutiiq people of Alaska have worked with a similar species, Aster subspicatus (Purple Daisy/Douglas Aster), for all manner of fevers, especially when occurring alongside cold, flu, or childhood eruptive diseases such as measles, as well as in the treatment of coughs and sinus congestion. In this case the root is generally decocted or chewed directly.
I like a strong infusion of Yarrow, Sticky Aster, Elderflower, and just a pinch of Beebalm (Monarda fistulosa var. menthifolia in this case) as a general diaphoretic formula. These plants are all local to me and easily gathered and kept on hand for Winter viral episodes. If the individual has a tendency toward to bronchitis, or has ongoing asthmatic issues, then I find the Aster to be an especially important addition, as it is especially good at helping to prevent lung crud from settling in before the fact.
The Purple Haze: Aster as Relaxant Nervine
In addition to Aster’s phenomenal action on the respiratory and circulatory systems, it also earns this blog post’s title with its ability as a relaxant nervine. While its primary affinity does seem to be on respiratory tension, Aster does have the ability to relax tension in the nervous system as well. I rarely use this plant as just a general nervine, but do frequently utilize it where folks have anxiety associated with chest/lung tension. So, if you’re someone who manifests nervousness as an inability to get a deep breath or a feeling of tightness in the chest, this plant could be very helpful as a nervine on its own or in an appropriate formula.
Parts Used & Preparations:
Parts: Traditionally, the root has been the part used in both European and Chinese medicine. However, I (and Jim) find the flowers just as useful, if not more so. However, when treating chronic coughs with distinct immune and lung weakness/deficiency, I especially like the rhizomes fried in honey to help create a more moistening and strengthening preparation.
Fresh Plant Tincture: I primarily use tincture in order to most efficiently extract the resin and aromatics.
Infused Oil: My attempts at infused oil have been useful in healing mild wounds or as a chest rub but not super strong. I tend to use it more in formulae than on its own.
Water-Based Preps: Tea and infusion are usable, but again, much more mild, and the flowers tend to turn fluff immediately upon drying. The fluff and leaves (and roots) do work medicinally though, and in years where the plant is especially abundant, I do gather enough for infusions as well. A great preparation I picked up from Jim McDonald:
“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..”
Also, fresh plant works well in infusions, and I prefer it to the dried when its practical and possible.
Infused honey and elixir: I find that Aster lends its medicinal properties very well to honey, whether the fresh flowers or the dried rhizomes. As previously mentioned, I tend to stick to the flower overall, and find that the flowering tops make a lovely elixir with alcohol (I like whiskey with Aster, but whatever you prefer) and a good honey. Infused honey is also lovely, but I’ve only ever used the fresh flowers for that so far.
Aster formulates exceptionally well with Grindelia and Elecampane for respiratory infections of many sorts, especially where there’s tension and a dryness associated with lack of oils. This is also a great combo for strep, if used at the very first sign of onset or relapse.
Aster and Lobelia are a fantastic team for addressing the early stages of many asthma attacks, most specifically if emotional upset is triggering the attack.
As I mentioned above, I love Aralia spp. and Aster together for chronic lung deficiency where the person tends to get a respiratory infection from every bug that comes around. Another lovely addition here is Fir (Abies spp.) if there’s a chronic low-grade cough associated with cold signs.
Hawthorn, Rose, and Cherry all have some amount of lung/nerve affinity and work well with Aster, especially where distinct tissue inflammation is a factor. Cherry being most specific to acute spasmodic issues, but all three helpful for longer term issues.
Considerations: I tend to agree with Chinese medicine that Aster is less suited as a single herb remedy for treating excess heat associated with a cough or fever. However, it can still be useful in this circumstance in the right formula. In general, a mild and gentle medicine appropriate even for small children. No overt contradictions that I know of.
New England Aster – Jim McDonald: http://herbcraft.org/aster.html
Personal correspondence and classes with Jim McDonald
King’s American Dispensatory
Flora of Alaska and Neighboring Territories (Hulten)
Chinese Medical Herbology and Pharmacology (Chen & Chen)
~Photos & Text ©2012 Kiva Rose~