“Despite simple appearances, the Asters are highly complex plants.” (163)
As I struggled to relearn basic plant biology, I quickly realized that Thomas J. Elpel, author of the overly-optimistically-named Botany in a Day: The Patterns and Method of Plant Identification, was not joking. The Aster family, it turns out, is the second-largest family of flowering plants, topped only by the Orchid. Moreover, there are subfamilies. And tribes. Sometimes individual plants get relocated within them. Basically, the family relationships within botany make human family structures seem rather boring. It’s all very confusing for a historian. No wonder I couldn’t find what I was looking for.
What I was looking for was the New England Aster. I have a lovely bush in my sideyard, and I have always admired its rugged spirit. I wanted to make friends with it by learning more about its potential uses. So far, when I wanted to know about a plant, I looked it up. There it was. So simple. Not so with the New England Aster.
Chicory. Dandelion. Arnica. Lettuce. Endive. Artichoke. Sunflower. Yarrow. Tansy. Echinacea. All Aster Family. All well-known for their medicinal and/or tasty properties. But their kins-plant New England Aster was a bit harder to track down. None of the volumes in my swiftly growing stack of reference books even mentioned the bushy purple flower.
This gap between the desire to know more about something and a paucity of sources is not unfamiliar to me. As a historian, trying to learn about something that turns out to have a scant record is pretty much my job. One of my main areas of research is the history of sexuality. It’s amazing how few people have left precise records of their sexual desires and activities, particularly records that can be corroborated through an additional source. When I look back at the past, my instincts tell me that certainly at least some of the cis, hetero folks were doing a lot more than simply reproducing or fulfilling their marital vows. Sexuality is complex. It creates needs. It satisfies needs. It inspires. And it leaves few traces. In my course on the history of sex and sexuality, I introduce students to concepts and tools used to broaden our thinking about historical methods in order to think through this history-without-a-history. One historian, Jim Downs*, suggests we borrow from physics. Astrophysicists cannot see a black hole directly. Instead, they identify its boundaries by seeing what is on the other side of them. In doing so, they can trace the contours of the space that is a black hole. This works surprisingly well for historians, too. Especially if, rather than limiting ourselves only to the evidence present in the sources immediately in front of us, we allow our selves to imagine the possibility of other explanations and other sources that we have not yet explored. By allowing ourselves to imagine a possibility, we can start looking for it where previously we had simply assumed it was not.
As I yearned to know more about the New England Aster, I wasn’t sure how much historical methods could help. Maybe if I was really comfortable with the uses of the other members of the Aster Family I could work my way towards an idea of what this particular plant could do, but I didn’t have that knowledge. Some herbalist authors suggested that the best way to learn was to listen, and the plant itself would tell you what its use would be. I listened. Hard. But I didn’t hear much beyond the buzzing of bees. Still, trusting my gut, allowing myself to imagine possibilities, I made a tincture of the leaves, flowers, and stems. Surely, it would be good for something.
Not long after that, while perusing the piles of books at Costco, I opened Lisa Rose’s Midwest Medicinal Plants directly to the page about the New England Aster. I had forgotten the most basic tools of the historian: perseverance and luck. Rose writes:
New England aster is a useful herb to have on hand for springtime allergies. This aromatic and astringent plant helps dry up dripping sinuses caused by hay fever or animal dander allergies. (191)
I was thrilled that the tincture I had made would be on hand for the next spring. I wondered, though, about other uses for New England Aster. I had continued my internet searching, but I still did not feel confident assessing which sites were the most trustworthy. Then, for Yule, I received a copy of the Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central North America. Here I found more information on my wild and crazy New England Aster. The entry for Symphyotrichum novae-angliae listed several uses for New England Aster root, all attributed to Native American communities. A poultice treated pain, while a tea could ease diarrhea and fevers. I was especially interested to learn that the Powtawatomi and Meskwaki, two Iowa communities, used a smudge of the plant to revive those who were unconscious. This could be useful during post-lunch class meetings when I and my students seemed to have a difficult time staying alert. Moreover, according to the Peterson Field Guide, the New England Aster “contains chlorogenic acids associated with anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and antioxidant activity.” (265)
I have fibromyalgia, so the word “anti-inflammatory” always catches my attention. This, then, is where I started to wonder about the methodology at work. As I said before, I like the New England Aster growing in my yard. Yes, it’s pretty. But there is something about this particular plant that I like. It is resilient. It takes up as much a space as it needs. And it has a strong spirit to it. Could it be that my desire to learn more about the medicinal uses of the New England Aster was a response to the plant calling to me, trying to tell me that it had properties that could help me? I think many folk herbalists would smile and nod knowingly. But as a 21st century scholar, it’s hard to turn down my rational mind. There is no way to measure this scientifically. Perhaps I will never know, and perhaps it doesn’t matter.
Or perhaps it is exactly what I tell my students in my history of sexuality course: if we allow ourselves to trust our instincts, to follow our hunches, then we will keep looking for that which is not immediately visible. And maybe, if we persevere long enough and have a bit of luck, we will open the book to the exact page we need.
*Jim Downs, “With Only a Trace: Same-Sex Sexual Desire and Violence on Slave Plantations, 1607-1865,” p. 15-37 in Jennifer Brier, Jim Downs, and Jennifer L. Morgan, eds., Connexions: Histories of Race and Sex in North America (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016).