Sunday, October 9, 2016

What Happened to the Asters?

Eastern tailed-blue on Symphyotrichum dumosum
A friend of mine has a wonderful expression to describe certain plants – she calls them “ex-Asters.” If you haven’t been paying attention the last 10 or so years, the North American plants that were in the plant genus Aster have all been moved to new genera (yeah, that’s plural!). The “Old World” asters got to keep the name, and all our plants now have an assortment of real tongue-twister names.

Here’s a short accounting of the ones in Georgia. Most of the reclassifications went to Symphyotrichum. Other Georgia ones went to Ampelaster, Doellingeria, Eurybia, Ionactis, Oclemena, Oligoneuron, and Sericocarpus. With 30 different species in Georgia, Symphyotrichum alone is enough to keep me flipping through identification resources. Of the other genera, I have only found Eurybia, Doellingeria, and Sericocarpus species so far. I hope to come across the others one day (and this is probably a good time of year to be looking).

Eurybia spectabilis
Sericocarpus asteroides

Guy Nesom has a webpage with a great explanation of the changes. In case you don’t like any of the “new” names, apparently we can’t fault any living person for what we have to deal with:
“Some of these Latinized scientific names were ‘invented’ and published long ago and, by the rules of nomenclature, must be used.  The ‘principle of priority’ establishes that the first name published in a specified manner is the correct one.  Symphyotrichum, which displaces the more euphonious Aster in the majority of the species, seems especially peculiar and tongue-twisting, and although it has almost never been used until very recently, it was first proposed in 1832 and can’t be denied its rightful place.”
Georgia aster, Symphyotrichum georgianum

Late purple aster, Symphyotrichum patens
Of course, all our plants have kept the old names as synonyms so you can still find them in search engines (Aster georgianus = Symphyotrichum georgianum). Did you know that for a time it was also proposed as Virgulus georgianus? Let’s hope the taxonomic studies have paused long enough for us to learn how to pronounce the new one (sim-fee-oh-TRICK-um)! I’m not averse to using “ex-Aster” in a pinch!

Symphyotrichum cordifolium (flowers not very blue)

Symphyotrichum shortii

You can see one of my earlier aster posts here; it features some of the other species I've photographed. If you are looking to add more native asters to your garden, there is one more week left for the fall sale at the State Botanical Garden. They have the finest offering of native asters and goldenrods that I've seen in Georgia. Look for it each October - about the time that asters start blooming.


  1. When out in the woods with Alan Weakley, he uses the Latin pronunciation, sim-fee-AWE-trih-cum!