Sandy’s Garden ... September the Month of the Aster

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

“Oh, it’s a long, long while from May to December ...”

“But the days grow short when you reach September/And the autumn weather turns the leaves to flame/And I haven’t got time for the waiting game.”

Tony Bennett, Pat Boone, Maurice Chevalier, Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Sammy Davis, Jr., Billy Eckstine, Ella Fitzgerald, Dean Martin, Matt Monro, Frank Sinatra, Mel Tormé and Andy Williams are among the myriad artists … most of them stars ... who have recorded September Song, written by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson and published by Warner/Chappell Music in 1938. 1938 … that’s 80 years ago, and there must be many people who, like me, still remember Kurt Weill’s achingly sad music to Maxwell Anderson’s richly poetic words comparing a year to a person’s life span from birth to death.

Perhaps it is because I am in the autumn of my life; perhaps it is because my birthday falls in September; perhaps it is because, in reflective moments, I can readily become melancholy about the things I wish I had done when I had the physical and mental resources to do them; or perhaps it is because I think … and have thought for many years, for the song is nearly as old as I am … that it is a wonderful song. And it does suit the floral calendar’s ideas for September, the flower of this month being the aster, a symbol of remembrance, patience and deep emotional love and affection. Did Maxwell Anderson know this, I wonder? And yes, I think he must have done.

The aster takes its name from the Greek word for a star by reason of the fact that this is exactly what it looks like – a star. Its botanical name is, for once, the same as its common name, save for the convention that the botanical name is accorded the dignity of an initial capital letter – Aster. Also known as starwort … the Old English word ‘wort’ meaning ‘root’ … asters come from a big family of plants called Asteraceae which is a major branch of an even larger family of flowering plants called Compositae. And Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines Compositae as ‘a very large family of herbs, shrubs, and trees (order Campanulales) considered to constitute the most highly evolved plants and characterized by florets arranged in dense heads that resemble single flowers.’ So now you … and I … know.

Asters come in a number of attractive colours – pinks, reds, lilacs, lavenders and whites. It’s known as morning glory in the United States, and that’s a pretty useful description of these happy flowers. One common member of the family, which I see less often growing in gardens than was formerly the case, is the Michaelmas daisy, which is actually a hybrid between a British aster and its American cousin. It gets its common name from the fact that it is sure to be in bloom on 29 September … Michaelmas Day… that day set aside in the Christian calendar to remember St. Michael, the patron saint of the sea and maritime lands, of ships and boatmen, of horses and horsemen, who flung the devil out of heaven and so set up the vale of tears which we usually call hell.

Asters make attractive garden plants no matter where they’re planted, although they prefer a site with full sun to partial sun and moist, well-drained, average to humus-rich soil. As well as their colourful flowers, they have another feature which brings something extra to the park or garden; they attract butterflies - as well, it must be said, as other, sometimes less-welcome flying insects; and gardeners sometimes plant asters to bring more butterflies into their gardens. Our ancestors had the curious habit of burning the plants to keep snakes away. As ever, I neither endorse nor refute this belief, although personally I wouldn’t bet on it!