New Mexico Wildflowers: Aster Family



Flowers of the aster family usually have a central nubbly flower disk (which can be inconspicuous), usually surrounded by "petals" (rays). Sunflowers are a classic example. There are exceptions!


When you encounter a slide show, hover your cursor over the images to control the images. Those are in alphabetical order by genus and species. 

Asteraceae phyllaries
Parallel phyllaries = daisy


The Aster family includes both daisies and asters. So how do you tell them apart? As I learned eventually, you need to look at the phyllaries—also known as bracts—the things that make up the green cup that a flower sits in.  In daisies, such as the one to the left, the phyllaries are long and parallel, like vertical boards in a board fence.  In asters, the phyllaries are shorter and arranged like shingles on a roof.


That's the claim, anyway. Sometimes I find things called daisies that have what look like aster phyllaries to me. Or vice versa. Sometimes I check the phyllaries and can't tell which pattern I'm looking at. Both daisies and asters are part of the aster family, so perhaps it doesn't matter. But if like me you're trying to learn your wildflowers, take a picture of the phyllaries to help you nail the ID.

Western Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

Look for the feathery leaves as well as for the thick clusters of tiny white flowers.


Fragrant Snakeroot (Ageratina herbacea)


Burnt-Orange Dandelion (Agerosis aurantiaca)

Like a common dandelion, this species has a puffy seed head.


Rag-Leaf Bahia (Amauriopsis dissecta)

My only photos so far are from late in the growing season. Look for a cluster of basal leave that are deeply notched, with simpler-looking leaves (often three-part, even one-part) higher on the stems.


Perennial Ragweed (Ambrosia psilostachya)


Leafy or Chamisso Arnica (Arnica chamissonis)

On one of my photos you'll see a Northern Checkerspot butterfly. If you go to my butterfly page, you'll see other images of those butterflies feasting on the nectar of Chamisso Arnica blossoms.


There's no relationship between the "Chamisso" in the name of these flowers and the chamisas featured elsewhere on this page. The flowers shown above are named after Adelbert von Chamisso, a botanist. Your useless fact of the day!


Dragon Wormwood, Wild Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus)

My ID to the species level is based on Littlefield and Burns but be warned, at least one other species of Artemisia looks similar. To see a photo of Wooly Bud Gall Midge galls on this plant, visit this page.


Sand Sage (Artemisia filifolia)


Mule Fat, Seepwillow (Baccharis salicifolia)

This is a shrub, so on mature plants look for woody lower branches to go with the narrow pointed leaves and the crowns of small white flowers. I'm calling these plants as Baccharis silicifolia because of the many small, evenly spaced teeth on the leaves. The similar B. salicina (below) has fewer, larger teeth on its leaves. Be warned that despite my ID, according to at least one source B. salicina ranges into the Albuquerque area and B. silicifolia supposedly does not.


Emory's Baccharis (Baccharis salicina)

On Emory's Baccharis the teeth on the leaves are fewer and larger. Also, the leaves are less willow-like.


Desert Marigold (Baileya Multiradiata)


The leaves are helpful for distinguishing this yellow flower from other species (see the next flower), so one of the pictures is a close-up of the leaves.


Woolly Desert Marigold (Baileya pleniradiata)

A neighbor of mine lets these grow in her yard. They're so similar to the Desert Marigolds in the previous photo series that I'm not entirely convinced of my ID. One reason to classify them separately is the many small, narrow, pointed leaves climbing the flower stalks.


Chocolate Flower (Berlandiera lyrata)

This flower is supposed to smell like chocolate, especially first thing in the morning or late at night. It's become a popular choice for xeriscaping, and my May 2020 photos show either cultivated or escaped examples. In contrast, my July photos are from open desert, where both the petals and the leaves are skinnier. Less water, less plant.


Nodding Burr-Marigold (Bidens cernua)

If you're ever tempted to confuse Bidens with Heliomera, note how non-hairy the bracts are on this species, and how the leaves have obvious small teeth along the edges.


California Brickellbush (Brickellia californica)


False Boneset (Brickellia eupatorioides)

Look for an unassuming small shrub with narrow leaves. In the late summer to early fall, False Boneset can be covered with flowers, albeit not very showy ones.


Baby Aster (Chaetopappa ericoides)


Chamisa, Rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus)

I've lived in New Mexico, mostly, since 1985 and until recently I thought that there was one species of chamisa, aka rabbitbrush. Not only are there multiple species, they fall into two or three genera. I think that these images are of Chrysothamnus depressus, given how the leaves press against the stems and the sharply pointed "petals." You'll see other rabbitbrush pictures under Ericameria.


New Mexico Thistle (Cirsium neomexicanum)


Yellow-Spine Thistle (Cirsium ochrocentrum)


Pallid Thistle (Cirsium parryi)


Horseweed (Conyza)

Horseweed is a common midsummer weed in Albuquerque. One of my pictures shows a seed head; if you look carefully at the lower right corner of that image, you can make out a green-legged crab spider.


Purple Aster (Dieteria)

Purple asters bloom profusely in the late summer, warning New Mexico hikers to get in mountain rambles while they can. If they have entire to toothed leaves they're from the genus Dieteria; if they have pinnate leaves they're from the genus Machaeranthera.  The blooms I photographed in November 2019 were a few brave holdouts in a patch where the asters had either formed or dispersed their seeds.


Turpentine Bush (Ericameria laricifolia)

In Albuquerque, Turpentine Bush exists only as a plant used in xeriscaping. It's included here because it occurs as a wild species in the southwest quadrant of New Mexico. Turpentine Bush blooms profusely at the same time as rabbitbrush but if you look closely, the flowers and leaves are different; compare these images with the ones immediately below. Crushing a sprig may yield a turpentine-like smell.


Chamisa, Rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa)

These images show what I think of "classic" rabbitbrush, Ericameria nauseosa (which I learned, decades ago, as Chrysothamnus nauseosus). That species consists of large, bushy plants (reaching above waist height). The flexible green younger branches turn into woody stems and lower branches with age. When the tips of the branches turn yellow with flowers, it's a sure sign that the warm months are almost over. When the air is still, the collected scent of the flowers smells like dead animals—hence the nauseosa part of the scientific name. 


Fleabane, Showy Daisy (Erigeron)

There are multiple species of fleabane—a type of daisy with many fine "petals," actually rays. I've decided to call them all fleabanes and leave it at that. They tend to be a light purple. A July 2019 photo from the Jemez Mountains shows how they can look white—but when you flip them over, you should see a purple tinge on the rays' undersides.


Western Goldentop (Euthamia occidentalis)

My photos are from the start of the flowering season for this plant. In the Rio Grande Bosque it occurs as a lush growth of waist-high "weeds." Look for flat crowns of small yellow flowers, on top of plants with narrow leaves. Look also for a pair or pairs of lateral veins paralleling the central vein of each leaf. If you look carefully at the picture with my hand in it, you can see a leaf (to the right of the tip of my middle finger) with a pair of parallel lateral veins.


Alkali Yellowtops (Flaveria campestris)


Red Dome Blanketflower (Gaillardia pinnatifida)

The "petals" (rays) of this blanketflower have obvious veins and divide into three lobes. A not-very-good photo shows the leaves.


Blanketflower, Firewheel (Gaillardia sp.)

In Albuquerque, the local showy red blanketflower is Gaillardia pulchella; the similar-looking G. aristata supposedly doesn't extend south of the Sangre de Cristo and Jemez Mountains. However, Albuquerque area blanketflowers in untended places can be escapees, including of pulchella-aristata hybrid cultivars. Until I gain some great botanical insight on the subject, I'll simply note that the leaves of these blanketflowers look like "normal" leaves, instead of having the dissected leaves of Gaillardia pinnatifida.


Curly-Cup Gumweed (Grindelia nuda)

Several species of gumweed have flower buds covered with what looks like spit. The other species go on to develop rays; this species has disk flowers only.


Snakeweed (Gutierrezia)

Snakeweed doesn't get much respect, but that's because it's a signature plant for overgrazing. The flowers are small, and the central disk isn't at all apparent. Snakeweed plants have skinny leaves on small, low clusters of stems. The plants smell when chewed, making them inedible to cows and sheep. As a result, snakeweed takes over range lands where the grass has all been eaten off.


Annual Sunflower (Helianthus annuus)

New Mexico's wild sunflowers can be small (about the width of the palm of your hand) and can occur on low, "sprangly" plants—nothing like the giants out of your hardware store's seed packets. But then, our sunflowers are adapted to surviving a harsh, dry climate where domestic sunflowers would shudder and give up.


Maximilian Sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani)

If you encounter a narrow-leaved sunflower with multiple flowers per plant, look at the bracts. On the Maximilian Sunflower those are narrow and tapering and do not clasp the flower. Annual Sunflower bracts are broader and flatter and tighter. To see what I mean, compare my photos of the bracts of both species. Maximilian Sunflowers are native to New Mexico but in the Albuquerque area, you're most likely to find Maximilian Sunflowers in plantings. My examples from the Rio Grande Bosque are escapees.


Parry's Nodding Sunflower (Helianthus quinquenervis)


Showy Goldeneye (Heliomeris multiflora)


Fine-Leaf Woollywhite (Hymenopappus filifolius)


Pingue, Bitterweed, Colorado Rubberweed (Hymenoxys)


Prickly Lettuce (Lactuca serriola)

If not cut back, this species quickly becomes tall and spindly. The flower petals (which to me have a slight green tinge) have flat toothed ends. The leaves have a jagged shape and the leaf margins are finely toothed. On the underside of the leaves, the central veins have more teeth.


Coulter's Horseweed (Laennecia coulteri)

Laennecia isn't supposed to be present in Albuquerque but I found some growing in an empty lot near Lobo Village. You're more likely to find it while hiking in the southern part of the state.


When this fuzzy plant bolts, the toothed leaves clasp the stem. Later they relax outward. You'll see photos of both of those stages of growth. The white flowers are tiny and it's the seed heads that make it obvious that this plant is in the Aster Family.


Purple Aster (Machaeranthera)

Please see my comments about purple asters (a catch-all term) under Dieteria, above. Since the leaves on these purple asters are pinnate, I spotted them to the genus Machaeranthera.


Desert Dandelion (Malacothrix fendleri)

At first glance the native Desert Dandelion and the non-native Common Dandelion (the bane of manicured lawns) look identical. However, the stems on Desert Dandelions branch and those on Common Dandelions do not. Also, the leaves are different: Common Dandelion "teeth" are backwards-pointing, while Desert Dandelion "teeth" point out to the sides. The Common Dandelion is listed below. 


Blue Lettuce (Mulgedium pulchellum)


Cotton Batting Plant (Pseudognaphalium stramineum)


Woolly Paperflower (Psilostrophe tagetina)

Look for three rays ("petals"), each with three slight lobes at the ends. The leaves and bracts are quite woolly.


Prairie Coneflower (Ratibida columnifera)

Also known as Mexican Hat because its tall central section protrudes so high above the petals, creating a "sombrero-like" appearance. The variety with yellow-fringed red petals is especially showy.


Black-eyed Susan (Rudebeckia hirta)


Vipergrass, False Salsify (Scorzonera lacinata)

Vipergrass is a common weed in the Albuquerque area, and easy to confuse with salsify.

Salsify, viperweed, Scorzonera lacinata, Tragopogon dubius

The photo above shows the leaves and flower buds of vipergrass (top) and salsify (bottom). Some vipergrass leaves have obvious thin barbs, but salsify never does. Vipergrass buds and withered flowers are shaped like an upside-down teardrop, while salsify buds and withered flowers are elongated. Finally, the puffy seed heads of healthy vipergrass are about the size of a golf ball, while a robust salsify's seed head is about the size of a baseball.


Nodding or Bigelow's Groundsel (Senecio bigelovii)

The buds of this flower remind me of little green pumpkins. Once the flower opens, it has disk flowers but no rays ("petals"). Unless being held up for photography, the open flowers face downward.


Cutleaf Groundsel (Senecio eremophilus)


Threadleaf Groundsel (Senecio flaccidus)

To help identify this plant, note the hairy covering on the stems and narrow leaves.


Riddell's Ragwort (Senecio riddellii)

In contrast to Threadleaf Groundsel, Riddell's Groundsel has hairless stems and leaves. If you look carefully at the narrow leaves, they alternate along the stems and include leaflets. Look for seven to nine rays on most flowers.  The flowers peak in September.


Broom Grounsel (Senecio spartioides)

This common species looks almost identical to Riddell's Ragwort (above) but has about five rays ("petals") on most flowers, as opposed to Riddell's seven to nine.


Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis)

Three images show Canada Goldenrod plants growing on the east bank of the Riverside Drain, a stone's throw from the Bosque. Two additional images show plants in the Bosque itself.


Goldenrod (Solidago sp.)

Littlefield and Burns show a similar goldenrod on Page 161 but don't provide an ID to the species level. After researching my photos, I can see why. There are multiple candidates for the name of this plant, within a seemingly fluid taxonomy.


Sow Thistle (Sonchus)


Skeleton Weed, Wire-Lettuce (Stephanomeria pauciflora)

This species has leaves, but the plant looks like a tangle of green wires.


White Prairie Aster (Symphyotrichum falcatum)

To help identify this plant, look for leaves that vary in size on the same plant—from longer than your thumbnail on the mail stems to tiny on the outer branches. The flowers peak in August and September.


Common Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

The non-native Common Dandelion merits inclusion here because it has colonized New Mexico's mountains. One way to distinguish it from the native Desert Dandelion (shown above) is to notice the backward-pointing barbs on the Common Dandelion's mature leaves. As the June 2020 photo shows, the young leaves don't have those obvious barbs.


Perky Sue and friends (Tetraneuris)

Although these flowers somewhat resemble Desert Marigolds, the long, narrow leaves help mark them as a different genus. There are three species of Tetraneuris in the Sandia Mountains, including Perky Sue (T. argenta). I believe that most if not all of my photos are Perky Sue.


Rocky Mountain Townsend Daisy (Townsendia eximia)

Although the common name for this species includes the word "daisy," the roof-shingle arrangement of the phyllaries shows that it's an aster. At least according to the rule I listed at the top of the page.


Yellow Salsify (Tragopogon dubius)

Salsifies always remind me of giant dandelions, especially when their seed head forms. The leaves and flowers are different, though. And unlike dandelions, salisfy plants don't keep close to the ground. The puffball of seeds on a healthy salsify is about the size of a baseball, and the plumes from such a seed head are much larger than a dandelion's.


Be warned that there's a non-native "salsify impersonator" loose, namely vipergrass.


Golden Crownbeard (Verbesina encelioides)

This sunflower-like species differs from actual sunflowers in having leaves with obvious teeth, yellow to orange centers instead of black centers, and rays that end in little teeth instead of being rounded.


Goldenweed (Xanthisma)

In my neighborhood, this plant seems to specialize in growing out of cracks in the sidewalks. For me, its signature feature is how the leaves are "toothy all over."


Cocklebur (Xanthium strumarium)


Plains or Rocky Mountain Zinnia (Zinnia grandiflora)