Michaelmas and Its Daisies

Late purple aster (Symphyotrichum patens)

In England, Michaelmas, or the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, traditionally is celebrated on September 29. Long associated with the beginning of autumn and the shortening of days, it is one of four ‘Quarter Days’ tied to solstice or equinox: Lady Day (March 25), Midsummer (June 24), Michaelmas (September 29), and Christmas (December 25).

Although associated with religious festivals, Quarter Days also served a secular purpose; in the past, Quarter Days marked a time to hire servants, pay rents, or begin leases. Traditionally, Michaelmas also marked the end of harvest: the conclusion of summer’s productivity and the beginning of the new agricultural cycle.

As the turn toward winter began, various late-blooming asters became associated with the celebration of St. Michael. Just as the saint was considered a protector against darkness and evil, the so-called Michaelmas daisy was considered a token of resistance to the advancing gloom of autumn and winter.

The Michaelmas Daisies, among dede weeds,
Bloom for St Michael’s valorous deeds.
And seems the last of flowers that stood,
Till the feast of St. Simon and St. Jude.

Today, an assortment of asters have come to be considered Michaelmas daisies, and most belong the genus Symphyotrichum. Generally tall, clump-forming, and autumn-blooming, they can be abundant in North American marshes and fields.

Perennial salt marsh aster (Symphyotrichum tenuifolium)

Ancient traditions associated with the feast of St. Michael include feasting on a goose that had been fed on the stubble of the fields; baking breads or cakes with grain from the last harvest; and making dolls from the last of the corn shocks. Today, Michaelmas daisies still are exchanged or gathered to decorate tables, and verses such as this, from Malcolm Guite, are shared:

Michaelmas gales assail the waning year,
And Michael’s scale is true, his blade is bright.
He strips dead leaves; and leaves the living clear
To flourish in the touch and reach of light.

 

Comments always are welcome.

 

44 thoughts on “Michaelmas and Its Daisies

      1. I don’t think they grow wild in the UK, although I’m not certain of that. I think the ones we do see outside of parks and gardens are all escapees.

        They are less popular than they used to be. When I was a child you’d see them in the majority of gardens in autumn, but tastes and fashions change and they are met with far less, now.

        1. This British gardening site notes that flowers in the Aster genus are European and Asian, while those belonging to Symphyotrichum (like those I’ve shown here) are mostly North American in origin. It always surprises me to realize that plants moved from our country to yours, as well as vice-versa.

    1. To be honest, I came to the flowers late enough that I thought ‘aster’ was a common name, and Symphyotrichum covered them all. Then I discovered that Linneaus’s original classification had been changed: hence, those Wiki articles you provided. Now we have Aster, Eurybia, and Symphyotricum as genera. and all of them can be considered Michaelmas daisies. I’m trying to keep up!

  1. I learned something new today about Quarter Days. My horticulture hero, John Bartram, was an early American (and cool dude for his time) that sent many of our native plants over to England and they made their way around Europe. And of course, Europeans brought their plants here.

    1. I’ve never heard of Bartram. I suppose that’s mostly because I first became interested in plants in Texas, so the naturalists and botanists who were working here came to my attention first. I read that he kept journals, too, and that he collected in North and South Carolina. I’ll have to ask my friend from Charleston if she knows of him. She might, because she’s quite a historian of the area.

  2. What enjoyment to read a traditional sonnet made even better by so many harmonies of sounds. As a commenter there put it, invoking religious and secular senses of faith, “Thank you for restoring faith in the sonnet.”

    I don’t understand why a Quarter Day would be a time to hire servants. The need to hire a servant would presumably arise at random throughout the year.

    1. I know very little about medieval history, and I wondered if that day was to hire extra laborers for the harvest season, in the days of scythes, sickles, etc. When you’d need extra pickers, reapers, hay-trussers, haulers, etc. to bring in the grain, fruit, etc. in pre-mechanized days – – always a race to get everything in, before it spoils. But the Wikipedia entry says it actually marks the end of harvest season, and the workers were hired October to October. I guess at that point, everyone would be ready for a break, and could negotiate terms for the next work-year, so basically a “fiscal year”

    2. The sonnet’s beautifully composed, isn’t it? It reads well, without being stilted, but has some unexpected and quite wonderful lines.

      I found a bit more about the hiring that went on at Michaelmas. The autumn Quarter Day used to be the time for ‘Mop’ or hiring fairs. Servants and farm laborers would work from October to October, and then go to the center of the village or town to hire themselves out for the next year. People looking for work would dress in their best clothes, and carry or wear something associated with the work they sought. Maids looking for work would carry a mop (hence, the ‘mop fairs’), a shepherd might drape himself in wool, a gardener carry flowers, and so on.

      Those who were hiring would walk around the fair and talk with prospective employees. If an agreement was reached, the employer would offer a small amount of money to seal the deal; usually a shilling, called a ‘fasten-penny,’ which ‘fastened’ the contract for a year. The person would indicate their new status by taking off their symbol of work and putting on a bunch of ribbons: a way of declaring they no longer were for hire. All things considered, it sounds like a workable system.

  3. Mike seems like a pretty neat guy, and I’m always impressed he can handle a flaming sword and a set of scales at the same time. I’d just end up in a tangle and set something on fire. I’m always confusing him with St. George, because they both tend to be killing dragons, until I see the scales. That Michael Guite poem is terrific, I’m very glad you introduced it to me. It’s been a great year for wild asters, they’ve been really showy.

    1. As long as you don’t confuse St. Michael’s scales with the dragon’s scales, you’ll be fine.

      Another blogger introduced me to Michael Guite a couple of years ago. I always enjoy reading what he has to say about the Church’s festivals, especially those that are a little off the radar, and, like you, I thought his Michaelmas offering was great. He has quite a knack for sonnets — more knack than I had when we were forced to compose them in eighth grade.

  4. That purple aster is stunning! I love that shade of purple, but I don’t think I’ve seen any of these around this year. Of course, we’ve had an odd year weather-wise, from this spring’s floods to this summer’s drought. Even now, it’s been so muggy and hot I’m surprised anything is left blooming!

    1. Don’t I remember that you like purple gemstones, too? This shade of purple always reminds me of amethyst; it’s a gem of a flower, that’s for sure. Many people associate mums with autumn, and they’re beginning to appear in our grocery stores and gardening centers now — burgundy, and purple, and gold — but I’m coming to enjoy the asters even more, partly because they show such variety. They not only can be pink, purple, or white, there are some that seem to prefer dry conditions, and some that will tolerate even standing water. Amazing plants.

      1. One of the flowers for my birth month (September) is the aster, so yes, I’m loving your post, Linda! And I do have a fondness for purple gemstones (how did you remember that?!). I bought several mums –yellow and burgundy — for the outside porch, and they do help welcome the new season. Now, if we can get these 90-degree days to break!!

  5. I adore these tiny asters that are loved by butterflies. I have/had a white one that is very similar but it can bloom as early as June and July. I always intended to collect some of blue. Actually I think mine made its way to my property via the birds or maybe not. This year they were growing in a very prominent place and I had them all removed. They were quite tall and gangly and they looked like a patch of weeds. But one of the butterfly species uses the small “road-side aster” as its host plant- the butterfly name escapes now.

    1. I found some pretty white asters on Galveston Island, and have photos of two different skippers nectaring on the plants, as well as a metallic bee. It’s amazing how useful even those small plants can be.

      I just tried to ID the ones I saw, but it’s going to take more time. However; in the process, I think I finally identified the Common Checkered-Skipper. I think I hadn’t been able to ID it because I didn’t realize it’s a skipper.

      The nice thing about so many of the asters is that they’re willing to come back — sometimes much to a gardner’s chagrin, apparently. I hope if yours come back, they’re well-behaved.

    1. Do you have asters in your garden? I found this article about various cultivars that do well in your part of the world while I was trying to sort out the genera. You might enjoy glancing at it. It certainly has a lot of information about events I know you’d enjoy.

  6. I love these traditions that are tied to natural cycles like the seasons, or moon phases. I wish we lived by them much, much more. Thanks for writing about this – it’s all new to me. And I like the look of that Salt marsh aster – it reminds of me of asters I used to see back east. :-)

    1. There are downsides to the work I’ve chosen, but there have been significant upsides, too. Moving from a world dominated by clock and calendar to a world where work is wholly determined by sunrise, sunset, and the weather, was nerve-wracking at first. Now, it’s simply enjoyable. My grandparents used to talk of working from “kin to cain’t” — from when you kin see to do chores to when you cain’t — and it’s not the worst thing in the world.

      As for the asters — when these show up, it’s a sign that autumn truly is coming, however delayed it might be.

    1. The salt marsh aster’s one I really enjoy, and it is a beauty. I remember the first time I came across the word ‘Michaelmas’ — all I could think of was ‘Christmas.’ It turned out to be a reasonable association, but it was a while before I learned about the Quarter Days and all that. It’s fun to think of medieval traditions enduring into our time.

    1. You sure did get the snow! But I suspect you’re right that some of your asters survived. I remember spring snows that came in Iowa after the tulips and forsythia were blooming, and they did just fine. I suppose the insulating properties of the snow helped.

    1. See? We do share some things other than birds. I’m glad to know you still have some lovelies blooming, even though autumn’s creeping in faster up there than it is here.

      Have you ever read anything by Madeleine L’Engle? Arti often refers to her, or posts her poetry; L’Engle’s the one who wrote so many young adult books, like Wrinkle in Time. I first came across Michaelmas in her journal-like book titled The Irrational Season If you’ve never read it, it really is worthwhile. Since it’s a journal, it’s easy to dip in and out.

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