Very soon, the leaves in New England will turn gold, yellow, and red, and the mountains will glow. But right now, the blooming of countless asters gives an equally gorgeous, more intimate, display. In yards and fields, alongside roads, fences, and stone walls, really anywhere one looks, the blossoms proliferate day by day. Large patches of land suddenly turn luminous purple.
The flowers are small, about the size of a quarter, with thin purple-pink petals from a yellow disk. Aster grows in three to five foot stalks, often mixed amid goldenrod. The flowers smell faintly of citrus and soap and just slightly sweet. They radiate like starbursts, which of course earned the name “aster,” Latin for “star.”
The clusters honestly appear to glow, something my camera won’t capture. According to the Audubon guide, this is the “New England aster,” a variety found in meadows from Nova Scotia through Georgia, and westward into Oklahoma. I confess I’m glad for the name “New England aster,” as the term, say, “Georgia-Oklahoma aster” would dim my enthusiasm. Audubon also lists a “Showy aster,” with a coastal distribution, but the pictures show a comparatively spindly flower. Again, I’m glad my locale supports the true “New England aster,” whose good looks require no boastful naming.
The aster is among the last flowers to bloom in fall. The goldenrod, which blossomed abundantly in August, now turns to seed. And so the asters around my house are full of bees, socking away some final pollen:
From ancient Rome through the Renaissance, purple was associated with luxury and nobility. The dye, apparently, was nearly impossible to make, and therefore especially treasured. Queen Elizabeth I even restricted its use to royalty. For a few weeks in New England, the prized purple is easily found in the aster’s glow.
There is a wonderful line from Ralph Waldo Emerson, who knew a thing or two about New England meadows: “How does nature deify us with a few and cheap elements! Give me health and a day, and I will make the pomp of emperors ridiculous.”
Emerson and Elizabeth in mind, I collect asters in a mason jar with water, to bring home some starry splendor.