Michaelmas daisies always remind me of a favourite great aunt – Auntie Clarice – who used to enter hers into the local flower and produce show every September. She almost always won a place with them.
These plants are widespread throughout the world, we have our own native plant but a lot of the showier ones we see today are descended from the varieties brought over by John Tradescant the Younger from Virginia in 1637, or from China in the Victorian era.
The Michaelmas daisies are known collectively as asters, which is taken from the latin for star – astra. Their common name in the UK is star plant or starwort. There is reference to the creation of starworts in Greek Mythology which is connected with their flood myth.
In the Golden Age before evil entered the world, Astraea the Goddess of Innocence lived on earth. When sin entered she had to leave and was metamorphosed into the constellation of Virgo. Zeus, furious at the despoilation of the earth, sent a flood to destroy it, but Deucalian and Pyrra survived by climbing to the top of Mount Parnassus. When the water receded, leaving the couple desolate in the ruined landscape, Astraea moved by their plight, created starlight to guide them, her tears falling to earth as stardust which turned into star shaped flowers – the starworts.
With the introduction of Christianity into Britain, the starworts became known as Michaelmas daisies, presumably because they flower around the time of Michaelmas – the festival of St Michael and All Angels being on 29th September.
The michaelmas daisy among dede weeds
Bloom for St Michael’s valorous deeds
And seems the last of flowers stood
Til the feast of St Simon and St Jude
The feast of St Simon and St Jude was the 28 October.
The plant was used in England to treat the bites of mad dogs – it was beaten into ‘old hogs grease’ and spread on the skin. Pliny recommended a tea made from the plants as a remedy for snake bite, and an amulet of the herb to ease Sciatica. Virgil recorded its use as a cure for ailing bees and as an altar decoration in his Geogics (37-30BC)
There is a useful flower
Growing in the meadows, which the country folk
Call star-wort, not a blossom hard to find,
For its large cluster lifts itelf in air
Out of one root; its central orb is gold
But it wears its petals in a numerous ring
Of glossy purplish blue; ‘tis often laid
In twisted garlands at some holy shrine.
Bitter its taste; the shepherds gather it
In valley pastures where the winding streams
Of Mella flow. The roots of this steeped well
In hot high flavoured wine. Thou mayst set down
At the hive door in baskets heaping full.
Translated by T C Williams 1915
Image from Foxy Island Walks