What is Aster vimineus, and Why is it Important?

Arieh Tal, 2016

Aster vimineus is a name for one of the North American aster species, now known as Symphyotrichum racemosum (Elliott) G.L. Nesom.  The species was first named by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck in 1783.  The English vernacular name is "small white aster".
The short answer to the second question is that the name has been used in two popular wildflower field guides:  Peterson and McKenny (1968),  and Newcomb's Wildflower Guide (1977).  Several generations of naturalists have been using the scientific name Aster vimineus to identify these plants ever since.  However, that familiar name is no longer recognized today by most botanical authorities.  Hopefully, the following brief history will help those needing additional information about Aster vimineus.

This is what the plants look like:


Fig. 1,  Habit images of Symphyotrichum racemosum (small white aster).   Note the widely-spreading, recurved branches with numerous, congested, very small flower heads on short peduncles arranged in nearly one-sided order.  For more details, consult this species' page.
Like many other species, Symphyotrichum racemosum has undergone a long and convoluted taxonomic history, as generations of botanists struggled to understand the difficult group named "asters".  Along the way, several different scientific names were given.  Perhaps the first, and most persistent name given was Aster vimineus by Lamarck (Encyclopedie Methodique. Botanique, 1783).  By 1832, several other names were given to this same species by different botanists:  Aster racemosus, by Stephen Elliott (1823) and Aster fragilis by Willdenow (1803), Nees (1832) and Lindley (1832).  To add to the confusion, John Torrey and Asa Gray (A Flora of North America, 1840) listed the species only as a synonym of Aster tradescantii.

Many years later, Asa Gray (Synoptical Flora of North America, 1884) recognized Aster vimineus as distinct from Aster racemosus, and also noted that it was similar to another species called Aster diffusus (later renamed to Aster lateriflorus).  I should note that Gray's description of A. racemosus is not consistent with how later authors would describe plants bearing the same name.

M.L. Fernald (Gray's Manual of Botany, 8th Ed., 1950) recognized both A. vimineus and A. racemosus as separate species, but his description of A. vimineus was much closer to what we would call today A. racemosus.  However, what Fernald called A. racemosus appears to be a different species with densely pubescent leaves (versus glabrous leaves) that is distributed in southern states, only as far north as Virginia.

It's not clear whose logic prevailed, in which publication, and what justified the name change.  It's possible that Lamarck hadn't validly published the name, according to international naming standards, and thus the later-named species, A. racemosus, prevailed.  By 1991, Gleason and Cronquist's 2nd edition of their Manual of Vascular Plants relegated Aster vimineus to a synonym of Aster racemosus, as we recognize the species today.  In 2006, the Flora of North America Editorial Committee accepted the latest name change to Sympyotrichum racemosum, based on G.L. Nesom's 1994 revision of North American asters (sensu lato), and subsequently confirmed by the molecular phylogeny presented by Noyes and Rieseberg (1999).

It's been a long, difficult and confusing taxonomic journey, but hopefully the current classification will be the final one.  Thousands of other species have undergone similarly complex name changes over the centuries.


Page updated Nov. 3, 2016