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What is a Daisy?

What is a Daisy? | Copyright GreenPlantSwap Ltd

The simple Daisy? In fact it's a rather complex, composite flower

Ask a small child to draw you a flower, and they will invariably draw a circle, surrounded by a ring of loops, on a single stalk, with two rounded blobs at the bottom.

This is an almost perfect representation of a common Daisy, and it nicely illustrates the link between the humble Daisy, and our feelings that it represents innocence, simplicity, and the purity of childhood.

Oddly enough, the flower of the Daisy is far from simple: it is not one flower at all, but is in fact what is called a composite flower: the centre contains a dense mass of tightly-packed yellow fertile florets, surrounded by a thick double ring of sterile white florets or “rays” as they are called – these are the ones which you and I would call “petals”.

Composite flowers are very sophisticated, botanically speaking – these yellow florets open in sequence, spiralling inwards, so each composite flower receives the widest possible range of genetic material from the insects bringing in pollen to fertilise the florets.

And we thought the humble Daisy was simple!

The botanical name for the English or Lawn daisy is Bellis perennis, and they belong to the botanical family Asteraceae, one of the largest plant families, containing over 23,000 species: the name means “those with composite flowers” and, as the name suggests, Asters are the biggest genus within the family.

The genus name Bellis is derived from the Latin word “bella” for beautiful: or just possibly from bellum, meaning war, maybe because daisies grew in fields of battle and the military healers of the Roman Empire would soak bandages in their juice to bind soldiers’ wounds.

The perennis part is derived from perennial, meaning that it grows back year after year, hence the phrase “fresh as a Daisy”, and it is indeed remarkably resilient to being trodden on or mowed, continuing to flower month after month from early spring right through into autumn.

Why are they called Daisies?
The common name seems to derive from Old English phrase “day's eye” partly because they look a little bit like a miniature sun, and partly because they open in the morning, then close up tightly at night.

Daisy is also a diminutive for the name Margaret, apparently because the french version of the name, Margeurite, is also the name for the Oxeye daisy. But it became a girl's name in its own right in the Victorian era, along with many other “flower” names such as Rose, Clover, or Lily. Some of them, such as Violet and Pansy, have lost popularity over the years, but Daisy is one of those which is still going strong to this day.

The Daisy in popular culture
“Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do...” For most of us, the word Daisy conjures up the song (actually called “Daisy Bell”, and written in 1892): or visions of a 1920's bobbed-hair schoolgirl squeaking “Oh, I say, jolly poor show!” in posh accents.

Additionally, we think of the simple joys of children making daisy chains, or possibly Cicely Mary Barker's “Flower Fairies” illustrations, in which she depicted the Daisy Fairy as a tiny child, innocent, sweet and simple. It's debatable how the daisies feel about this innocence, after being ripped up, slashed and interlocked!

It's not clear when the name Daisy became associated with cows, but it is an enduring myth that cows are all called either Daisy or Buttercup. Or possibly Gertrude. Apparently, in modern farming, they just have ear tags with numbers, but a number of children's stories still choose to call their cow Daisy, and I am sure there are many hand-reared calves who are given this name.

According to some sources, ancient Celtic legends say that daisies spring from the spirits of children who died at birth – they thought that, to cheer up the parents, their God would sprinkle the flowers all over the earth, and it is possible that this legend is the basis of the our association of innocence with this flower.

It is also said that winter is not gone for good until you can tread on 12 daisies in a single step – again, I'm not sure how the Daisies feel about that!

Daisy chain photo"She loves me, she loves me not" ... it helps to know that all daisies have an even number of petals!

What are Daisies used for?
“She loves me, she loves me not...” it would seem, to any sensible person, that the wilful destruction of a beautiful flower should not be encouraged, but what can we say? People in love do strange things... and there is a time-honoured tradition of pulling off one petal after another, in time with this chant, to see what the future holds. Interestingly, a casual study of local daisies reveals that they have between 34 and 52 petals - and by “petals” of course we mean the white ray florets – but all of them had an even number of petals, which you might want to bear in mind when playing “she loves me... she loves me not.”

When not being tortured for our amusement, Daisies used to be a popular domestic remedy, with a wide range of applications: they are a traditional wound herb, and are also said to be especially useful in treating delicate and listless children, although it is not clear if the children were told to eat Daisies, or to go out and play with them. The leaves can be eaten raw or cooked, apparently, and the buds can be eaten in soups, sandwiches and salads, but as with all foraging, you do need to be extremely sure that you have the correct plant before you start eating it!

How do you know it's a Daisy?
My favourite part of the Daisy is the botanical description of the leaf, which is “spathulate”, what a wonderful word: it means spoon-shaped. When you look at a Daisy leaf, you can see how the end is rounded, with a wide, thick section instead of a stalk, and it is just about possible to envisage using them as spoons. Some botany books spell it spatulate, which makes it sound more like a spatula than a spoon, but we prefer "spathulate", as it's such a lovely word.

These spathulate leaves (go on, say it out loud!) spring, stalkless, from what is called a basal rosette, which is a clump of leaves growing all at ground level. The flowering stems, or peduncles, rise directly from this rosette, and each is tipped with one single flower.

The central florets are always yellow, and the outer ray florets can be all white, or white tinged with pink: and although there is only one true English daisy, our own GreenPlantSwap Plant Finder has details of no less than eight beautiful cultivars of this lovely plant.

However, if you want startlingly bright colours, and a flower that is more than a couple of inches tall, you have to turn to the many flowers which are called “Daisy” but which are not Bellis: there are a large number of “fake” Daisies, which is hardly surprising as the Asteraceae family is huge, and there is a tendency for plants which look like other plants to be mis-named: the GreenPlantSwap Plant Finder lists no less than 161 plants-called-Daisy!

The most frequently found imposter has to be the Ox-eye daisy, Leucanthemum vulgare, also known as Shasta daisy: often foolishly planted as part of a wildflower meadow, where it is guaranteed to out-perform every other plant until has swamped them all.

Although white is the traditional colour for daisies, the Felicia genus includes several species known as Blue daisies, or Kingfisher daisies: Globularia or Globe daisy is also blue, not to mention being rather less of a typical daisy-shape, and Townsendia, or Easter daisies, come in a wide range of colours.

Then we have a whole raft of African daisies, ranging from Arctosis, Dimorphotheca, through the many colours of Osteospermum, the rather unusual alpine genus, Venidio-arctotis – and I suppose we could include Gerbera, the Transvaal daisy, in this group.

While travelling the world, we would also encounter Celmisia, the New Zealand daisy, along with Brachycome, the Swan River daisy, and Cladanthus or Palm Springs daisy, not to mention Pachystegia, the Marlborough rock daisy, which does at least have the decency to be white, unlike Argyranthemum – variously known as Margeurite daisy, or Dill daisy.

Not all the imposters have single flowers - Olearia cheesemanii or Daisy bush is actually more of a shrub, with bunches of slightly daisy-like white flowers, and Townsendia - Easter daisy – looks rather like a miniature version of the Olearia. And it feels wrong not to include Gazania, a genus of flower which look just like a Daisy but for some unknown reason are popularly called Treasure flower.

Helichrysum (Straw daisy) and Helipterum (Paper daisy) both have what are called everlasting flowers, in that if you dry them correctly they will last for many months, although the colours do tend to lose their vibrancy: and if you are looking for vibrant colours, look no further than the old-fashioned Mesambyranthemum or Livingstone daisy, which are available in almost every colour you can imagine! Their low-growing, brightly coloured faces are quite a long way away from the essential simplicity of our own Daisy, but you can see the resemblance.

Finally, there is the large group of Asters, which are often known as Michaelmas daisy, so called as they don't flower until around Michaelmas time, which is traditionally the 29th September, and they bring a welcome splash of colour to the late-summer garden.

Unlike many of the imposters, our English or lawn Daisy is evergreen, as well as perennial, which might make it a darned nuisance for gardeners who like their lawns to be exclusively green, but to the rest of us, it's a cheerful, resilient and charming little flower!

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