By Marion Lobstein
In modern taxonomic treatments, the genus Aster has been radically altered for our native “asters”! Based on molecular (DNA) and morphological (physical characteristics) evidence, our area’s native “asters” have been reassigned, as their original genus is now divided into five other genera—Doellingeria, Eurybia, Ionactis, Oclemena, andSymphyotrichum. Our only remaining Aster species is the Tartarian aster, Aster tataricus, an introduced species from Asia. That species and many other Eurasian asters are primarily still classified in the genus Aster. According to molecular DNA studies, our native asters are more closely related to Solidago (goldenrods) and Erigeron (daisy fleabanes) species than the Eurasian asters.
A table, below, summarizes the information on the taxonomy of our “asters” authorities (who first assigned the genus name) and dates, the derivation of each genus name, and a list of our area species in each genus. As you will notice, these are not new or recent genera. The latest date of these genera being proposed is almost a century old, 1903!
The history of the use of the name “aster” goes back as early as 2,300 years ago with the Greeks. Greek naturalists, such as Hippocrates, Aristotle, and Theophrastus, and the Romans Dioscorides and Pliny, all used the name of Aster. In the middle ages, many herbalists used the name or variations as they described medicinal uses of this plant. In the 1600s, a controversy among herbalists and botanist occurred as to whether there is only one species of Aster or multiple species.
Around the same time, there was an influx of North American Asters into Europe. Carl Linnaeus in the mid-1700s recognized twenty species of Aster. In the 1762 second edition of Flora Virginica, John Clayton and Johann Gronovious noted 14-15 species of Aster. By the early 1800s, the Frenchman Alexandre De Cassini introduced the genus Eurybia, and the German Christian Nees von Isenbeck in 1832 introduced the genera Symphyotrichumand Doellingeria. In the early 1800s, Asa Gray and John Torrey used other genus names, such as Eurybia, to separate Aster species, but Gray later decided to lump the asters into one genus in his Gray’s Manual of Botany (1848). In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the American Edward Lee Greene proposed Ionactis (1897) and Oclemena (1903). Nathaniel Britton and Addison Brown, in their Illustrated Flora of the Northern United States, Canada, and the British Possessions, used Eurybia as a synonym for Aster glomerulus,and Doellingeria and Ionactis as valid genera. As late as 1991, Arthur Cronquist, in the second edition of the Manual of Vascular Plants of the Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada, recognized Ionactis as a valid genus. It was only in the mid-1990s, however, based on new molecular (DNA) and morphological evidence, that Guy L. Nesom reintroduced the use of the “new” genera of Doellingeria, Eurybia, Ionactis, Oclemena,and Symphyotrichum to separate our native asters from Eurasian aster. It has been a long and complicated journey of naming and renaming our beautiful fall asters, and there will probably be more changes to come!
Resources for further reference
Good online history of genus Aster:
“The Pre-Clusian History of Botany in Its Relation to Aster,” by Edward Sanford Burgess[the then-authority on genus Aster]. In the Memoirs of the Torrey Botanical Club, Vols 8-9, New York: The Torrey Botanical Club (1902).
“Species and Variations of Biotian Asters with Discussion of Variability in Aster,” by Edward Sanford Burgess. In the Memoirs of the Torrey Botanical Club, Vol. 10, New York: The Torrey Botanical Club (1906).
Good online general articles on changes to genus Aster:
“The Curious Case of the Disappearing Asters,” by Alan Weakley, UNC Herbarium Curator, in “Report from the Herbarium.”
“Aster La Vista?” in The American Gardener, American Horticultural Society
“Name Changes in Aster” at Wikipedia
“Name Changes in Aster by Guy Nesom
“Recent name changes in the aster family (Asteraceae),” by Guy Nesom
“Chart Noting Changes in Asteraceae and Aster Species Found“, by Marion Lobstein