Given that the Equinox has just happening, and that it has just come to my attention (belatedly, I concede) that we ought to be calling a large number of asters Symphyotrichum instead, I thought I’d have a look at the Michaelmas daisy. I don’t grow them, with the exception of a rather pretty, delicate one which persists in the front garden, and which I don’t remember planting. In my distant youth, it was (along with buddleia and ragwort) one of the first plants I learned to distinguish, since it grew prolifically all over the bomb-site (I told you my youth was distant) which was the wonderful adventure playground for all us local children.
The taxonomy was complicated even before the new round of renamings, and I’m not sure that I have got it right. The name Aster (Greek ἀστήρ, a star) was given by Linnaeus to a batch of plants with daisy-like flowers, all of which sit now in the family Asteraceae (formerly the Compositae) in the order Asterales in the clade Asterids.
The first port of call on these occasions is John Gerard, who, in the Herball (1597), has four plants which he calls ‘starrewoorts’, naming them in Latin Aster atticus, A. italorum, A. montanus, and A. hirstutus; or in English, starwort, Italian starwort, mountain starwort, and hairy starwort. (The Aster marinus above is probably A. tripolium (see below).)
Gerard’s list of ‘vertues’ is more than usually compelling … and apparently, ‘The Native American people harvested wild aster for a multitude of uses. The roots of the plant were used in soups and young leaves were cooked lightly and used as greens. The Iroquois people combined aster with bloodroot and other medicinal plants to make a laxative. The Ojibwa used an infusion of aster root topically to aid with headaches.’ (Or you can just eat the flowers and sprinkle the petals into tea.)
The first example of adopting ‘aster’ as an English word to mean ‘star’ is apparently by John Florio (1553–1625) in his 1603 translation of Montaigne’s Essais: ‘The revolutions and carrols of the asters and planets’. But the first instance of treating ‘aster’ as an English word to mean the plant comes (I think) in the writing of the poet John Philips (1676–1709), from Herefordshire, who had studied botany at Oxford while intending to become a physician – but this is complicated too …
The OED has ‘1706 Phillips, Aster, a Star; also the Herb Star-wort, Spare-wort, or Cod-wort. a 1761 Mrs. Delany Autobiog. (1861) III. 507 A little pale purple Aster with a yellow thrum.’ It helpfully gives a full reference to the Autobiography of the great and good Mrs Delany, but nothing useful about ‘Phillips’: the only author of an appropriate date spelled thus was John Milton’s nephew, John Phillips (1631–1706?), the political controversialist and friend of Titus Oates, among whose writings botany does not seem to feature, so I’m taking the liberty of assuming that the poet was meant. (I’ve also found a reference for its first use being in 1664, but I can’t find anything to confirm this.)
The name ‘Michaelmas daisy’ (referring of course to the time of its flowering) may have been given originally to Aster tripolium, the sea-starwort or sea-aster, a coastal plant throughout Europe and North Africa, but these days in Europe it is usually applied to Aster amellus, originally a mountain plant across Europe and northern Africa.
Only about 180 Eurasian plants are now categorised as Aster; there are another 400 or so species from the Americas which are now divided into ten genera, from Almutaster, which simplifies things slightly by having only one species, Almutaster pauciflorus (the alkali-marsh aster) to the aforementioned Symphyotrichum, which has about ninety, including S. novae-angliae and S. novi-belgii, both famous as the origins of many garden hybrids.
The common English names are just as multifarious, many of the northern American ones being named for a region or a botanist, such as Brewer’s aster or Georgia or San Bernadino aster. The Michaelmas daisy was at one time known in Britain as the Italian aster (see Gerard above), while the China aster (which I know I have come across in nineteenth-century novels – Trollope, perhaps?) was never a ‘real’ Aster, but Callistephus chinensis (another single species in its genus), named by Count Alexandre Henri Gabriel de Cassini (1781–1832), who came from a scientific family and had the astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini as his great-great-grandfather.
Meanwhile, the person we have to thank for the origin of the Symphyotrichum genus name is Christian Gottfried Daniel Nees von Esenbeck (1776–1858), who I first came across only a couple of months ago.
That is probably more than enough about names. Michaelmas daisies come in a very great variety of hybrids, but the colour range is limited to a palette from white to deep violet via pinks and blues. Doubles have also been bred, though I don’t like these as much … The best place to see them is undoubtedly Old Court Nurseries and the Picton Garden, near Malvern. I occasionally visited the Picton Garden many years ago when going to Malvern was a major highlight of my calendar: it consisted of little else than [!!the National Collection of!!] Michaelmas daisies. It has clearly branched out since, and I must go back.
The plants are, unfortunately, susceptible to mildew (though many modern hybrids have been bred to resist it). They don’t seem to be preyed on by too many larvae – just those of some moths, including the hummingbird hawk moth, which is welcome to some of my leaves so long as it sticks around. I’ve never seen slugs or snails attack the foliage either, which has to be a plus.
One of the most popular Michaelmas daisies as a garden flower continues to be the hybrid ‘Mönch’, a cross between the European A. amellus and A. thomsonii, discovered in the Himalayas and named in 1876.
The clergyman, Eton schoolmaster and hybridiser Charles Wolley-Dod (1826–1904), who frequently wrote for Shirley Hibberd‘s Garden Magazine and the Gardener’s Chronicle, apparently raised seedlings of this cross, which were shown at an RHS meeting in 1892, but it is not known what happened to them.
Happily, a Swiss nurseryman, Carl Ludwig Frikart (1879–1964), later performed similar crosses, and introduced three hybrids, named after Swiss mountains, after 1918: ‘Jungfrau’, ‘Eiger’ and ‘Mönch’, followed by ‘Wunder von Stäfa’ (Stäfa being the home of his nursery) in 1924. (For years I had taken the name ‘Mönch’ literally as ‘monk’, and thought it was an odd name for a plant; perhaps even odder for a mountain?)
These very reliable garden plants (if you avoid/ignore the mildew) are described everywhere as ‘easy to grow’ perennials, which die down or can be cut back after flowering and will pop up back next year. Perhaps, when (if) my Masterplan for redesigning the back garden comes to fruition, it will be time to acquire a few more (though no doubles!).