Wednesday, November 13, 2013


Summer held on a bit longer and then it was gone.

Autumn winds are stripping the trees of their leaves, winter lurks in the wings, and the little asters I found at the beginning of October decorating the edge of the woods are no more.  It wasn’t the weather, but a mowing of their ragged field, that erased their delicate colors from the landscape.

At a similar time of year, Walt Whitman looked back on a particularly wonderful season of wild flowers (“oceans of them”) and, though white was the predominant color,
. . . there are all hues and beauties, especially on the frequent tracts of half-opened scrub-oak and dwarf cedar hereabout – wild asters of all colors.  Notwithstanding the frost-touch the hardy little chaps maintain themselves in all their bloom.  (Wild Flowers, Specimen Days in America, 1883, p. 122-123.)
So, absent the mowing, they would have hung on longer.

When I found the asters in October, they seemed to offer up a final summer hurrah, a celebration enjoyed for the last time by myriad bumblebees and Cabbage White butterflies.

Asters are a composite flower, the flower head composed of many individual flowers – ray flowers surrounding disk flowers.  These particular asters marked the boundary between field and woods, not with a thick swath of white, but rather arcing patterns of white ray flowers, accented by yellow and purply red disk flowers.  The flowers lined one side of the plant's branches.  A pointillist’s creation.

I believe these are Symphyotrichum lateriflorum, previously known scientifically as Aster lateriflorus and still popularly known as “calico asters” because their mixture of colors resembles the printed patterns of calico cotton cloth.  Over time, the individual yellow disk flowers turn that purply red.

Curiously, though it may have been the British who gave the name “calico” to the cloth coming from Calicut, India, today they might not understand the popular name “calico asters” for these particular flowers.  “Now, in England, [the term is] applied chiefly to plain white unprinted cotton cloth, bleached or unbleached . . . .”  (Oxford English Dictionary.)  It’s in the U.S. where colored prints are the defining characteristic of the cotton cloth called “calico.”

Though I’ve possibly muffed the identification because species of asters can be difficult to differentiate, let’s stay with calico aster.  This species has other common names such as “goblet aster,” “one-sided aster,” or “white woodland aster” – all easily understood references to various aspects of its appearance.  But it's also been called “starved aster.”  A troubling name to be sure.

I think I stumbled on the origin of this one in A Year at North Hill:  Four Seasons in a Vermont Garden (1996) by gardening experts Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd.  Wait, in this discussion of common names, I shouldn't apply the phrase “gardening experts” to them; it fails to do them justice, just as North Hill isn’t really captured by the word “garden.”  Eck and Winterrowd designed gardens, wrote widely, were instrumental in the homegrown food movement, created North Hill in southern Vermont, among other things.  The seven-acre North Hill is considered one of the finest gardens in the world.  As Anne Raver wrote in Winterrowd’s obituary, he and Eck “filled their south-facing slope with tens of thousands of trees, shrubs, ground covers and bulbs, many of which were not supposed to survive a Vermont winter.”  (Anne Raver, Wayne Winterrowd, Gardening Expert, Dies at 68, New York Times, September 24, 2010.)

Ah, asters . . . .  Eck and Winterrowd wrote in A Year at North Hill of Aster lateriflorus (the calico aster’s old scientific name),
Each flower possesses a little bristly center that is often called crimson but is really only a dull brownish purple.  The thick bunched stems it produces are all clad in minute toothed leaves that turn to tarnished copper when touched by autumn frost, just as the little flowers are fading toward purplish tan.  It is a plant that might be said to have not one single good feature, but that is, when all its features are put together, entirely beautiful.  Even in the thin soils of clear-cut woods here in Vermont (where it is called the ‘starved’ aster) the thrifty little two-foot-tall bushes, smothered in faded flowers, possess a distinction.  (p. 101)
Pioneers wearing faded calico and making do, struggling to survive on the edges of old hardscrabble fields.  I await their return next year.

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