This section is from the book "The Native Flowers And Ferns Of The United States ", by Thomas Meehan. Also available from Amazon: The Native Flowers and Ferns of the United States in Their Botanical, Horticultural, And Popular Aspects.
Stem eighteen inches to two or three feet high, slender, roughish-pubes-cent, branched above, - the branches often elongated, spreading, and clothed with minute bract-like leaves. Leaves half an inch to two or three inches long, scabrous and serrulate-ciliate, clasping and auriculate at the base. Heads of flowers about medium size (larger in the variety phlogifolius), sub-solitary on the slender branches, rays bluish-purple; involucre minutely scabrous; akenes silky-pilose. (Darlington's Flora Cestrica. See also Gray's Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States, Chapman's Flora of the Southern United States, and Wood's Class-Booh of Botany.)
THE common name of the plants comprising this well-known genus is Star-wort, which is a translation of the ancient Greek name aster, signifying a Star; and so named because of the ray petals of the compound flower giving the head somewhat the appearance of a star. But the plants known as Aster to the ancients were a very heterogeneous set, as must needs be when the laws of true affinity were but imperfectly known; and some of them have been removed to other genera by authors who have lived nearer our own time. The Aster of Dioscorides is probably the plant now known as Inula Bubonium, and more closely related to the common Elecampane than to anything we should regard as an Aster now. The Aster of Pliny, the well-known Roman writer, was probably the plant still known as Aster Amellus, and which grows in Italy, Sicily, and abundantly about Athens in Greece. But though the name Star-wort in its origin is so ancient, so many plants have flowers that have been likened to stars, and by the people named accordingly, that it is as well that the easy name Aster has come into common use, and that modern botanists have generally dropped the name of Star-wort.
Our knowledge of the true Asters has increased wonderfully during the past century. Linnaeus, in his first great work, "Hor tus Cliffortianus," in 1737, describes only nineteen species. Will-denow, in his "Species Plantarum," has one hundred and three. Decandolle, in 1836, described one hundred and fifty, after placing a number of Willdenow's species in other genera. Since that time, by the labors of botanists in America, Australia and elsewhere, the number known is over two hundred, the greater proportion of them being natives of the American continent. The list is still increasing, and scarce an expedition of any consequence explores the comparatively unknown portions of the country without adding a new Aster to our list of native flowers. There are few genera of plants better known to the people generally than Aster, and it is not uncommon for the whole of the very large natural order of Compositae to be referred to as the Asteraceous one.
At first sight, all asteraceous plants seem to have a general resemblance, and, therefore, the order seems one difficult to study; but with a good pocket lens to examine the inflorescence carefully, the family soon becomes an enticing one to the student. Now every one understands that what is known as the head in a composite plant is really made up of innumerable small flowers. Sometimes these flowers are few in a head, say less than ten; but to be an Aster there must be more than this number. Then some composites have all the florets alike, but an Aster must have the outside or ray florets strap-shaped, and the inside or disc flowers tubular; and besides, these strap-shaped outside florets must be fertile, while in other genera they may be barren. The scales of the involucre, or the little green processes em-bracing the flowers, are often in one single row; but in an Aster there must be several rows, and they must lap over one another like tiles on a roof. Then again, in some compound flowers the part which bears the little flowers, the receptacle, is elevated, or cone-like; but the receptacle of an Aster is flat and pitted with little holes. The seed, or akene, is more or less flattened; and the pappus, which, in so many flowers of the order, give the seed a sort of downy crown, in Aster is but in a single row and composed of slender bristles. When the student has all of these characters in one single head, he has most likely happened on an Aster; and it is by similar easy combinations of characters that any genus of asteraceous plants may be easily traced.
In determining the species, the leaves, involucre, petals and general habit have to be taken also collectively. With close attention to these and some other points Asters are not more difficult of study than other plants. In the species native to the eastern United States, Dr. Gray pays attention first to the root leaves. Some have these heart-shaped; others not. As we see in Fig. 1, our plant belongs to the last section. Then there are some which have the lower leaves not heart-shaped, but have the upper leaves somewhat of this character, and here we find our plant. In this section he has but three species, of which two are described as very smooth, and the other rough-pubescent. This latter character suits our plant, - but hairiness or smoothness is a rather variable character in plants, and it will not be safe to rely on this alone in the leaves and stems; but we see the akene (in Fig. 4) is silky, and this character is more constant in this part and is of more value in deciding the species. The manner in which the flowers are produced on the stem is always of importance in an Aster. At times the terminal flowers are on shortened stalks, while the lower ones are lengthened, giving the whole mass of flowers a sort of umbrella-like or corymbose appearance; while others have shortened side branches, producing a racemed or spike-like character. Our species is intermediate in this respect. Sometimes the lateral branches are short, making a slender panicle; at other times they are on slender branchlets from two to six inches in length, which push out horizontally and at right angles with the main stem; and it is from this "patent" or spreading character of these branchlets that the plant derives its specific name. It is generally more or less few-flowered in comparison with other Asters; but when, in this much-branched condition, a dozen or more flowers may often be found expanded at once, it gives a conoid bunch of flowers very beautiful indeed. It usually grows in large quantities together; and though the slender stem and few flowers of the single branch does not make much show by itself, together the plants make a very effective feature in our beautiful autumn scenery. In the location from whence our specimen was taken for illustration - the Wissahickon Valley, near Philadelphia - it seems to delight in the partial shade of trees or low shrubs in rather cool situations. Authors differ as to its habits in this respect. Lesquereux says it is found in shady woods and sandy prairies in Arkansas; Dr. Gray says "dry ground;" and Willis reports it as common in dry soil in New Jersey. Prof. Wood's experience is that it is found in moist ground, and with this Dr. Darlington agrees, he giving "moist woodlands" as its habitat in Chester county, Pennsylvania. This last is perhaps its most desirable location, as it has not proved a very great success when removed to open sunny borders for cultivation.
In polite literature the Aster has an honored place, and is an especial favorite with American poets. A fair-sized volume might be formed of the many pretty things they have said of them. Many of these are well known. Earl Marble has some pretty lines, not so often quoted, from which we may take the following:
" O, aster-blooms! ye cluster so
In quaint fence-corners, and in rifts Of hedges, that a dream of snow
Ye seem; soft, dainty drifts Of shining snow, from distance viewed;
Of snow that soon shall gather there, When winds shall grow more stern and rude,
And skies in azure tints less fair."
1. Root leaves from a stock to flower next year.
2. Terminal flowers from an average-sized branch.
3. Section from central portion of a branch.
4. Flower with silky akene, and its pappus.