There is something humble and cheerful about daisies. They are the flower that most children will draw when asked to draw a flower; they have a central disc from which long, simple petals radiate. People who do not know the name of any other flower will likely be able to identify a daisy.
They are members of the aster family (Asteraceae) and the individual blooms are actually composed of two types of the flowers. The disc flowers are small, radial cones crowded together on the center and the ray flowers are larger, bilateral symmetrical features that form each petal around the edge of the disc.
The name “daisy” is thought to be a corruption of “day’s eye,” which refers to their habit of closing up during the night and opening again each morning.
The “classic” daisies with the yellow disc flowers and the white ray flowers are European species, the oxeye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) and the lawn daisy (Bellis perennis). Both of them have been widely introduced in North America and are generally considered to be weeds. True to its name, the lawn daisy can be mowed repeated without any effect on its health whatsoever.
The aster family is the most diverse of the flowering plants and dozens of species in North America alone are referred to as “daisies.” The USDA Web site contains a rather complete list of these species, some of which are rare and local and others of which are found in nearly every state and province on the continent. Many of the latter are introduced, but some natives are also widely distributed.
One popular daisy-like North American native is the genus Echinacea (purple coneflower), which, in addition to being a popular perennial in gardens, is also frequently sold as a cut flower. Furthermore, Echinacea has also become popular as a stimulator of the immune system, although medical studies have yet to show that it is actually effective.
Perhaps the most popular daisy that is used as a cut flower is the Gerbera daisy, which is native to the subtropics of South America, Africa and Asia, but is widely cultivated and frequently hybridized to produce a dizzying array of vibrant colors. The popularity of the flower may be measured by the extent of the Web site (gerbera.org; based in South Africa) devoted to it.
James Lovelock, who conceived the Gaia hypothesis in the 1960s while working on preparations for the Viking mission to Mars, created “Daisyworld” in the 1980s to defend his hypothesis. Critics had questioned as to weather biota could produce a planetary homeostatic condition, so Lovelock and Andrew Watson developed a computer model to demonstrate the proposed phenomenon. Daisies (some white and some black) were used to represent all life on a planet.
That Lovelock would use a daisy to represent all life is a testament to their ubiquity and ordinariness. They are frequently grown in gardens because they require little care, will prosper in most soils and in either full sun or partial shade. If they are regularly divided at the roots and replanted, they will continue to send out numerous and larger blossoms year after year.
Outside of gardens introduced daisies may actually take over fields and ditches, leaving little room for other species. It is easy to see how they could become the default cut flower for wandering children and adults everywhere.
Who has not picked a daisy and picked up the petals one by one, intoning “She loves me … she loves me not.”
Who has not picked a handful of daisies and split their stems to insert another stem up to the flower, one after the other to make a daisy chain to put in your hair or where on around your wrist.
This habit grew into a symbol of the counterculture in the 1960s when John Phillips wrote “San Francisco”:
If you’re going to San Francisco
Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair
If you’re going to San Francisco
You’re gonna meet some gentle people there