Saying farewell to summer
It’s mid-September ... late summer is sliding toward early autumn. The end of summer officially arrives with the autumnal equinox of Sept. 23, when the sun crosses the celestial equator going north to south.
One senses this transition in the cool mist-shrouded mornings as well as by the brown-splotched and red-tinged leaves of the buckeye trees. Communal groups of swallows will soon be gathering on wires and branches prior to their annual southerly migration. Before long, monarch butterflies will be skipping with ease along the Appalachian chain headed for their ancestral wintering grounds in Mexico.
For some, it’s a time of decline and decay, of frenzied wood gathering and other dour preparations for the upcoming days of winter. But for many, myself included, fall is the most invigorating season of all.
Some think that spring is the prime time for wildflowers; yet, the fall wildflower season is equally spectacular — and perhaps even more varied and interesting. Joe Pye weed, iron weed, cardinal flower, goldenrods, various woodland orchids, gentians, and others are just some of the showy species associated with the fall months. But the quintessential fall wildflower is surely the aster.
Here in the Smokies region there are 30 or so asters. These can often be difficult to identify down to the species level. The best non-technical field guides for this purpose, in my opinion, are Lawrence Newcomb’s Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1977), supplemented by Richard M. Smith’s Wildflowers of the Southern Mountains (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1998) and Jack B. Carman’s Wildflowers of Tennessee. (Tullahoma TN: Highland Rim Press, 2001).
Don’t become too frustrated if — even after consulting these and other sources — you can’t make a final decision as to the precise species you’re attempting to identify. In this regard, Jim Horton, now retired after a distinguished career as a botanist at Western Carolina University, observed in The Summer Times (Tampa: Cider Press, 1979) that, “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.” In other words, even the experts can’t always determine which species of aster they’re trying to identify. It’s my experience that the same observation can be made in regard to goldenrods.
When one hears the name “aster,” he or she usually 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.
Accordingly, Donald and Lillian Stokes, in their informative book A Guide to Enjoying Wildflowers (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1985), noted that, “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. She kept referring to a group of flowers she was particularly fond of that she knew as “Farewell to Summer.” Curious as to exactly what she was talking about, I asked her to 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 know fall’s a-coming,” she said.