The stars of late summer

Posted on Friday, August 31st, 2012

Aster x frikartii 'Monch'If your summer blooms are fading and the autumn seems to be rather a drab prospect, why not roll out the red carpet for some real star plants? Asters, or Michaelmas daisies, are reliable, mainly perennial plants which provide much needed colour in the late summer and autumn.

To celebrate these late, but very welcome, bloomers, we thought we’d share with you our top 10 interesting facts about asters…

  1. Virgil wrote about asters in his poem the Georgics (book 4) which was completed around 29BC. He described the plant in some detail; “A flower, too, there is in the meadows, which farmers have called amellus, a plant easy for searchers to find, for from a single clump it lifts a vast growth. Golden is the disk, but in the petals, streaming profusely round, there is a crimson gleam amid the dark violet. Often with its woven garlands have the gods’ altars been decked; its flavour is bitter to the tongue; shepherds cull it in meadows cropped by the flock, and by Mella’s winding streams. This plant’s roots you must boil in fragrant wine, and set for food at their doors in full baskets.”
  2. Asters generally have 21 petals (or “ray flowers”), which many view as an example of the frequent appearance in nature of numbers from the Fibonacci sequence.
  3. What’s in a name? Well, the genus name Aster is the ancient Greek for ’star’ and refers to the shape of the flowerhead. Following DNA research the North American species of asters are now categorised under the Symphyotrichum genus, so Aster novi-belgii is now Symphyotrichum novi-belgii and Aster lateriflorus is now Symphyotrichum lateriflorum. The aster’s common names include Michaelmas daisy and starwort. The name ‘Michaelmas daisy’ originated around the time of the introduction of the Gregorian calendar. At this point Michaelmas Day, the feast day of St Michael the Archangel, was brought forward to the 29th September, when the aster is flowering. Traditionally asters were worn to church or school on that day. The epithet ’starwort’ is derived from the Old English ‘wort’, which originally meant ‘root’, and was adapted to mean any plant which has medicinal benefits.
  4. During the Hungarian revolution of the 31st October 1918 protesters in Budapest wore asters and the events of that day subsequently became known as the ‘Aster revolution’.
  5. The first aster to be cultivated in the UK was the native Aster tripolium, which was grown for ornamental, culinary and medicinal use in Cornwall. In 1596 Aster amellus (so called because it grew along the river Mella in Italy) was grown in the Holburn Physic Garden by John Gerard. In the USA, in the 17th century, Aster tradescantii (now Symphyotrichum tradescantii) was discovered by John Tradescant, who brought it back to the UK and from which he cultivated A. novae-belgii and A. novae-angliae (now Symphyotrichum novae-belgii and S. novae-angliae).
  6. Asters have had many practical uses over time. Records dating back to around AD200 show that Aster tataricus was being cultivated in China; its roots were used medicinally for treating chronic bronchitis and tuberculosis. Native Americans smoked dried aster roots. Tea made from the roots is said to be useful in treating fevers. Yellow dye can be produced from the stems, flowers and leaves of asters.
  7. Historically asters have had other, non medicinal, uses. They were laid on the graves of French soldiers to symbolise that they wished things had worked out differently and the smell of burning asters will, apparently, ward off serpents.
  8. Asters are said to symbolise love and daintiness. They are the ‘birth flower’ for September.
  9. When you look at an aster flowerhead you’re not just looking at one flower, but many. Each one of the long petals is actually a flower (“ray flowers”) plus the central disk is also made up of many tiny flowers all bunched together (“disk flowers”). This is a ‘composite’ flower arrangement which is common to all plants within the Asteraceae family. The individual flowers open sequentially, in an inward-moving spiral pattern. The varied opening times mean that different flowers are fertilised by different pollen to promote variety. This evolutionary strategy has been very successful for the Asteraceae family which grows abundantly and is the second most diverse plant family with around 22,000 different species.
  10. One legend explaining why the aster received this name (other than because of the star-like shape of the flowers) is that the plant arose when the Greek goddess of justice, innocence and purity, Astraea, became unhappy at the corruption on Earth and decided to dwell in the stars as the constellation Virgo. Depending on the version you read, she either looked at the Earth and cried because she couldn’t see any stars, or she wept for the two lost and lonely humans who remained after Zeus flooded the Earth in his anger at the sins of man. In both stories the aster flower then grew out of the soil where her tears fell.

The aster shown is Aster x frikartii ‘Mönch’.