Go Purple!

Whether on the field with the cheering crowds and uniformed players, or in the high grass with late blooming flowers, you are likely to find potent purple power this time of year. Last week, both the MV team, having won the past few games, and the flowering foliage in the field were standing purple, proud and well-watered after all the rain.

When it comes to late-season colors, there are a few species of asters that really run with the ball.

Showy asters and New York asters (not to be confused with the New York Astors!) are only two fall favorites providing purple pleasure. There are many more varieties in the Asteraceae or Compositae family.

Asters are both common and easily identifiable. Look for the flower with its petals coming out like rays. The word aster, in fact, means star, perhaps referring to these blooms, or maybe alluding to the Greek legend that asters were made from star dust. Though purple may inspire the most cheers, white, blue and pink are possible for this fall flower.

Although the common name aster is straightforward, botanically the name game gets way more complicated. You might say it’s a bit of a gray area. Asa Gray, a 19th century North American botanist, found the genus aster problematic in its taxonomy. Frustrated, he admitted, “I am half dead with Aster. I got on very fairly until I got to the thick of the genus, around what I call the Dumosi and Salicifolia. Here I work and work, but make no headway at all. I can’t tell what are species and [sic] how to define any of them. . . . I was never so boggled. . . . If you hear of my breaking down utterly, and being sent to an asylum, you may lay it to Aster, which is a slow and fatal poison.”

The question of taxonomy continued to perplex. Somewhere around 1993, the year that the singer Prince (of Purple Rain fame) became “The Artist Formerly Known As Prince,” botanists began to revisit the true genetic origin of plants from the genus formerly known as asters. This was a game changer, leading botanists to develop a new system for classification of the asters in the family Compositae. As an example of the change, consider that the New York aster went from Aster novi-belgii to Symphyotrichum novi-belgii.

With all of the hullabaloo, one would think that these flowers would be of utmost importance. Not necessarily. At least not to D. J. Mabberly, author of The Plant Book: A Portable Dictionary of Higher Plants, who had this opinion: “Compared with other large families, the Compositae are of little value to man except as ornamentals, the edible ones having low levels of toxins or, as in lettuce, having had them selected out; some are insecticides and fish poisons, but many are noxious weeds... With increasing clearance of vegetation throughout the world, these aggressive toxic plants will inherit it.”

Contrary to that particular D.J.’s spin, Ralph Waldo Emerson extolled the genus with his genius because he knew that, like Vineyard teams, these plants are stars on and off the field. His reply to those who would detract from his joy in these “ornamentals” was:

“Chide me not, laborious band!

For the idle flowers I brought;

Every aster in my hand

Goes home loaded with a thought.”

Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.