This is the time of year when clusters of small daisy-like blooms dot the landscape. Some are tiny and ghostly white, more froth than flower; others the size of half dollars with bright periwinkle petals and chrome yellow eyes. The Berkshires alone boasts more than 20 species of wild asters (Latin for “star”) and there are several hundred known varieties around the country. Like Japanese Anemone and Sweet Autumn Clematis— other late bloomers — most asters seem too delicate and ethereal to stand up to Fall’s sinking temperatures and rising winds. But they do — and put on quite a show in the bargain. Though many of the New England asters I’ve tried to introduce into my garden haven’t thrived, I’ve had good luck with the cultivated variety ‘Alma Potschke’ (pictured at right) whose vibrant crimson blooms light up the back of the border straight through until the first hard frost.
We had the upper field mowed last week, and I thought of this poem by Robert Frost and his apt description of “the headless aftermath.” Read this lovely lament for summer’s passing, and you’ll find an aster waiting for you at the end.
A Late Walk
By Robert Frost
When I go up through the mowing field, The headless aftermath, Smooth-laid like thatch with the heavy dew, Half closes the garden path.
And when I come to the garden ground, The whir of sober birds Up from the tangle of withered weeds Is sadder than any words.
A tree beside the wall stands bare, But a leaf that lingered brown, Disturbed, I doubt not, by my thought, Comes softly rattling down.
I end not far from my going forth By picking the faded blue Of the last remaining aster flower To carry again to you.
Its pink, furry florets shoot up along roadsides and in fallow fields, the tallest kids in the class. Though a little ungainly, Joe Pye weed is reliably sturdy just when other showier plants are starting to wither and fade. For centuries, it’s been used by herbalists to reduce fever. Legend has it that an Indian named Joe Pye shared it with the settlers in the 17th-century, placing him everywhere from Maine to the Carolinas. Recently, however, scholars were able to identify Joe Pye as Joseph Shauqueathquat, a Mohican, born in 1722 in New York who moved to Stockbridge, Massachusetts where he became a selectman and a chief sachem of the local Mohican community. He took up arms against the English in the Revolution and was commended by George Washington who wrote that the tribe “fought and bled by our side” and should be considered “friends and subjects to the United States.” Some claim that because he shared his knowledge about herbal healing with white people, Joe Pye was forbidden to accompany his tribe when they moved west to Wisconsin. Whatever his actual end, the weed that carries his name remains an enduring part of the late summer landscape in the Berkshires.
Joe Pye weed crops up in a very different setting in this poem by Idra Novey, an award-winning American novelist, poet, and translator.
Of the Divine as Absence and Single Letter
by Idra Novey
If our view were not a Holiday Inn but a fringe of trees, I could say G here is our greenly hidden. If we lived amid Joe-Pye weed and high grass instead of spackle and peeling plaster I could say perhaps I’m listening to G now but mean the owl, a wind playing the silo, a sticking sorrow, any sound but the snore of our latest visitor on the futon. Dear G, please make him turn, make me kinder. I’m not far from unfathoming it all.
I’ve always loved them. Long, broad, and flat, Romano beans look like professionally ironed versions of their string bean cousins. They were called “Italian beans” when I was growing up, only available frozen and always on a hit and miss basis. They’re still hard to find fresh, except for a few weeks in late July and early August when they briefly put in an Continue reading →
When I’m hot and tired after working in the garden, I’ll walk up into the woods to commune with the ferns and moss that carpet the forest floor. Cool and fresh-looking on even the most oppressive days, they exude a zen-like calm. Perhaps that’s because they’ve survived on earth for so long, with some estimates putting them at nearly 300 million Continue reading →
Intricate as origami, among the first plants in the garden to flower every spring, bleeding hearts are as cheery and old-fashioned as hand-made valentines. They seem to appear, fully formed, overnight. Their sprays of blossoms — each a heart-shaped pouch dangling a tiny white fan — float like Japanese lanterns above luminous fern-like foliage. Cultivated bleeding hearts, members of the poppy Continue reading →
It’s been on its way out for years, scattering branches and bark the way an elderly woman might start shedding her possessions. A decade ago, the tree was sheared nearly in half when a high wind rampaged through the Berkshires, leaving a tangled mass of shattered branches and willow wands on the front lawn. What remained, looked lopsided and off-balance, an amputee with a phantom limb. We thought of taking the rest of the tree down then, but something in me couldn’t let it go. Planted when our farmhouse went up almost 100 years ago, the tree seemed the spirit of the place somehow. Hummingbirds built their nests in its branches every summer. Flying squirrels took up residence in one of its decaying knotholes. But in Continue reading →
We’re still seesawing between seasons in the Berkshires, the temperatures sometimes swinging 40 degrees in a single day. But there’s a red haze in the underbrush and a thickening in the upper branches of the trees. The brook roars day and night, its banks overrun with snowmelt and spring thaws. The fields remain brown and beaten down by winter, stalks sticking up out of the ground like the spokes of collapsed umbrellas. But something’s in the air — that Continue reading →
This is the time of year when a flowering plant can seem like a miracle. Cut flowers just don’t cut it. Kept alive through refrigeration, there’s too often a funereal feeling about them. The heady scent of lilies, the bright smile of Gerbera daisies can’t mask the truth that you’re looking at something that’s been knifed and has only days to live. An orchid on the other hand, even the $20 moth variety sold by the hundreds at Whole Foods, can last for months. (Which is quite a bargain considering that, at the height of Orchidelirium in Europe in the 1800s, a single orchid plant could go for thousands of dollars.) Continue reading →
It’s been cold, and it’s getting colder. The first sub-zero temperatures of the year will swoop in this weekend — the kind of cold that’s beyond any given degree or wind chill factor. Cold that becomes an adversary, slapping your face so hard when you venture outside that your eyes water. Cold that turns your breath to smoke and your ears to burning cinders. This is Dr. Zhivago cold, only without the snow-swept vistas and tinkling ice Continue reading →
In a year that had so little to look forward to, it promised to be a once-in-a-millennium celestial spectacle. Jupiter and Saturn, the two largest worlds in our solar system, would appear almost as one in the night sky. And not just any night sky: the event would take place on the Winter Solstice. The combined planets would form a star so bright that many believed it was the one the wise men had followed to the city of Bethlehem two Continue reading →
It gets dark a little earlier every afternoon now. The shift accelerated a few weeks ago when we turned the clocks back. Our house, tucked into a rise on the side a long hill, falls into shadow even sooner than for our neighbors up the road. The sun snags on the top of the tree line some time after 4 o’clock most afternoons and then collapses like a spent balloon, brightness bleeding out into the Continue reading →
It’s time to come inside. Time to put the gardens to bed and stow the flower pots and outdoor furniture away. I’ve already disassembled the tomato supports (with dozens of green laggards still clinging to the vines) and harvested the last of the arugula and lettuce. Except for the oaks and beech trees, most of the leaves have fallen, and the mountain — hidden for so many months behind the foliage — emerges from the mist, an enormous Continue reading →
I looked up from weeding the vegetable beds a few weeks back to see that half the pears on our espaliered pear trees that we’d trained against the side of the barn were gone. Branches that had been drooping with fruit just the day before had been stripped bare, a bountiful harvest of Bartlett pears vanishing into thin air overnight. Occasionally, in the past, we’d find a half-eaten, partially ripened pear on the ground under the trees, the work of the chipmunks who’ll try anything once, even the eggplant I discovered, still on its vine, covered in disgruntled t0othmarks. But the pear theft was more like a heist, a clean, professional sweep of the goods with no sign of the culprit or how the sting was pulled off. Interestingly, though, only the Bartlett pears were stolen. Our tree of Asian pears was left untouched. Continue reading →
In late August, hydrangeas take center stage in the Berkshires. And in a summer with so little live music, dance, or theater, they’re putting on a welcome show. Our “Pinky Winky” paniculatas are exploding in the back garden, setting off rockets of deep rust and white surrounded by bursts of tiny sparklers. On a drive through town as dusk descends, the hooped skirts of a row of Annabelles — snow white and otherworldly in the fading Continue reading →