Permanent Camp: Asters

Permanent Camp: Asters

George and Elizabeth Ellison

by George Ellison with illustration by Elizabeth Ellison

The seasons spin around: spring into summer into autumn into winter. As I write this, summer is sliding into autumn.

Aster Illustration by Elizabeth Ellison

For some, it's a time of decline and decay, of frenzied wood gathering and other preparations for the often-dark days of winter. For others, autumn is the most invigorating season of all—a time to get out and tramp around and forget about winter. Some think that spring is the prime time for wildflowers, yet the fall season is equally spectacular. And the quintessential fall wildflowers are surely the asters.

In Great Smoky Mountains National Park there are more than 20 aster species. These can often be difficult to identify down to species level. The most helpful non-technical field guides for this purpose, are, in my experience, Lawrence Newcomb's Newcomb's Wildflower Guide (1977), Richard M. Smith's Wildflowers of the Southern Mountains (1998), and Jack B. Carman's Wildflowers of Tennessee (2001).

Don't become overly frustrated if—even after consulting these and other sources—you can't make a final decision as to the exact species you're attempting to identify. In this regard, Western Carolina University botanist Jim Horton observed in The Summer Times (1979), "The asters form a nearly continuous series of variant forms. This means that while any two aster plants may be quite different from each other and may obviously belong to different species, it is possible to find . . . plants that are transitional between one variant and the next."  

The designation ‘aster’ conjures up an image of a purplish-blue flower with a disc shape. But more than a few aster species bear small white flowers. Several of the white-flowered aster species blossom by early September.

Donald and Lillian Stokes, in their informative book A Guide to Enjoying Wildflowers (1985), noted, "The name 'aster' comes from the Greek word for 'star,' but the small white-flowered species, called frost asters, should have been named after the Milky Way. They bear such an abundance of tiny blossoms among roadside grasses that they look like the mass of stars you see strewn across the sky on a clear night. In fact, one legend says that asters are a result of a god scattering stardust across the land."

Long ago, I was discussing fall wildflowers with an elderly woman on her farm near Sylva. After she kept referring to a group of flowers she was particularly fond of, I asked if she could show me some.

 "Sure enough," she said.

I followed her into the garden behind her home, where she pointed to a beautiful stand of large-leaved asters (Aster macrophyllus) in full bloom that, she advised me, her husband had transferred from the wild into their garden when they were married.

"When they bloom, you can say ‘Farewell to Summer,’ which is what we have always called them.”

George Ellison is an award-winning naturalist and writer. His wife is the noted artist and paper-maker, Elizabeth Ellison, who has a gallery-studio in Bryson City, NC. Contact them at info@georgeellison.com or info@elizabethellisongallery.com.

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