Any of the various asters can also be called a Michaelmas daisy, so named because they are members of the Daisy (compositae) family and they bloom through Michaelmas, providing a late show of color and bloom in the garden.
There are species of asters native to America, Switzerland and Italy. The aster amellus or Italian starwort is the original plant dedicated to Archangel Michael, whose holiday we celebrate on Michaelmas, September 29. (For more on this holiday, see this article.)
The 16th century herbalist, Gerard, commented on the aster native to England, the sea starwort (aster tripolium) which grew along the coast but flourished when brought into the garden. He called it tripolium because “It was reported by men of great fame and learning [he was referring to Discorides]..that it doth change the colors of his flowers thrice a day.”
In the 17th century, the plant collector, John Tradescant Jr. began bringing asters from North America to England. In 1633 he brought over the Virginia aster (aster lateriflorus). Later he introduced the very popular New England aster (Aster nova-angliae) and New York aster (Aster nova-belgii). These plants have since been reclassified; they are still in the tribe of Asters but under the genus name of Symphyotrichum (from the Greek words for “growing together” and “hair”—poor plant, aster is a much more appropriate and glamorous name).
Still if you were looking for one in a nursery, you’d probably say you were looking for an aster. There are many varieties available, most of them hybrids of the New England and New York asters, in many colors and sizes, with names like Harrington Pink (an heirloom aster dating from the 1930s) and Persian Rose, September Ruby and violet Carpet, Purple Dome and Wood’s Pink.
Asters are named for the stars they resemble—the name comes from the same root word as astrology and asteroid, asterisk and disaster–and in England, they are sometimes called starwort (wort simply means herb or plant with healing properties). Several legends are told about their origins. One says that Virgo scattered stardust on earth and they became asters. Another attributes their origin to the goddess Astraea (often associated with the constellation Virgo) who withdrew from earth out of sorrow and looking down wept. Her tears became asters
In ancient Greece, aster leaves were burned to keep away evil spirits and drive off serpents. Pliny the Elder recommended a tea of aster in cases of snake bite and an aster amulet to ease the pain of sciatica. Virgil wrote about it in the Georgics:There is a useful flower Growing in the meadows, which the country folk Call star-wort, not a blossom hard to find, For its large cluster lifts itself in air Out of one root; its central orb is gold But it wears petals in a numerous ring Of glossy purplish blue; ’tis often laid In twisted garlands at some holy shrine. Bitter its taste; the shepherds gather it In valley-pastures where the winding streams Of Mella flow. The roots of this, steeped well, In hot, high-flavored wine, thou may’st set down At the hive door in baskets heaping full.
Helen Baroli in her book about Italian holiday food mentions picking yellow Michaelmas daisies on the beaches near Rome. She also made a yellow sponge cake called “Margherita” (daisy) on Michaelmas.
I don’t think the cake has any asters in it but the Plants for the Future website gives aster amellus, the native Italian aster, a rating of 2 for edibility and 2 for medicinal qualities. The roots have been used to make medicine for coughs, pulmonary infections and malaria. However they warn that although the native aster is probably safe to eat, the hybrid decorative varieties may not be.
The aster is considered a herb of Venus and like the daisy, which belongs to the same family of Compositae, it has been used in love divinations.
Asters are easy to grow. I just saw a meadow full of three-foot high purplish-blue asters in a marsh on Puget Sound, where I presume they were growing wild. Although the plant can grow in poor conditions, it likes moist soil and lots of sun. Asters should be divided every three years.
One of my favorite garden writers, Paghat, offers a selection of aster photographs and tips on cultivation (at least in the Pacific Northwest) at her website. Check her index for other asters.
She’s also the person who referred me to Picton Garden in Worcestershire, the site of the original Michaelmas Daisy Nursery founded in 1906 by Ernest Ballard. He was an English plant breeder who specialized in Michaelmas daisies.
Chinese asters come from a different genus Callistephys, but they also bloom in autumn at the same time as the Michaelmas daisy. Their name means beautiful crown from the Greek kallistos (beautiful) and stephanus (crown). They were often planted in Chinese gardens in pots and arranged in a row with one shade blending into one another to produce a rainbow effect, something that might be fun to do with asters in your garden.
The sheer variety of China asters in shapes and color, is why aster means “variety” in the language of flowers. Asters are also associated with elegance and daintiness.
Barolini, Helen, Festa: Recipes and Recollections of Italian Holidays, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich 1988
Gerard’s Herbal, edited by Marcus Woodward, first published in 1597, reprint by Studio Editions 1994
Martin, Laura C., Garden Flower Folklore, Globe Pequot Press 1987
Martin, Laura C., Wildflower Folklore, Globe Pequot 1993
Martin, Tovah, Heirloom Flowers, Fireside 1999
Parson, Frances Theodora and Mrs William Starr Dana, According to Season, A Celebration of Nature, Houghton Mifflin 1990
Ward, Bobby J, A Contemplation Upon Flowers: Garden Plants in Myth & Literature, Timber Press 1999
Wells, Diana, 100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill 1997
The lovely picture of the purple aster was taken by Heather Oetkin’s elementary school students and featured at the Human Flower Project website, where Julie Ardery admits that asters are on her hated plants list.
For Cecily Mary Barker’s depiction of the Michaelmas Daisy Fairy