Friday, September 13, 2013

Discovering White Wood Aster

It was sunny and warm on a late Wednesday morning when I followed curator Stefan Bloodworth into the H.L. Blomquist Garden of Native Plants. We were on the lookout for a particular blooming flower, the white wood aster (Eurybia divaricate). 

With white petals and pink and yellow centers, the white wood asters were growing at the footpath's border underneath some of Sarah P. Duke Gardens' tall pine trees. Beautiful of course, the delicate blossoms also seemed dainty, refined, unassuming. I don't know about other Gardens visitors, but I always believe flowers have personalities as varied and vibrant as their colors. Don't get me started on the large leaf princess flower (Tibouchina grandiflora) - those purple blooms have serious attitude.
Habitat is just one aspect of the white wood aster that sets it apart from many other members of the aster family (Asteraceae). These asters are shade tolerant, and they are found along wood edges and breaks in the trees, Bloodworth says.

While these asters are thriving in the Blomquist's shady forest conditions, other flowers “would be languishing in a place like this,” Bloodworth continues. The flowers were buzzing with pollinators. I watched wasps, bumblebees, flies and beetles in frenzied activity around the asters, and as a fall bloomer white wood aster “fills an important niche in a fall woodland garden.” The flowers attract pollinators, and the insect pollinators are important sources of protein for birds readying themselves for their difficult migratory journeys.
The White Wood Asters, unassuming as they seem to me, also represent a significant shift in the field of botany in the 21st century. It used to be that a botanist would head out into the field, braving all weathers and animals and stressed out students (in the case of Duke Gardens staff) to study plants and their forms, separating them into different physical taxonomies. While those skills are still important, there has been a major shift from field taxonomy to molecular botany.

“There are no American asters anymore,” Bloodworth explains. “They have all been reclassified into other genera based on molecular botany.” Formerly Aster divaricatus, the white wood aster’s genetic code has earned the flower the new name Eurybia divaricata. 

Perhaps someday there will be an app on your phone, Bloodworth suggests, that will allow people, botanists or not, to take a sample of the molecular structure of a plant in front of them and instantly identify it. While part of me wishes for such a leap in technology, another part wishes I had paid a little more attention to my chemistry and biology classes if apps are to become more sophisticated than I am.
Molecular botany aside, the white wood asters are growing in a beautiful spot amidst the other native plants of the Blomquist Garden. Bloodworth left me to take as many pictures as I wanted (and there were many), and I listened to the birds and watched the bees pollinate the asters and fly on to other flowers in the Gardens. I am looking forward to coming upon the white blossoms in the middle of a Carolina forest. At the very least, anyone with me will be oh-so-impressed when I instantly know the revised Latin name for the white wood aster!
Columnist Erika Zambello is a graduate student studying Ecosystem Science and Conservation at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

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