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Everyone Loves Daisies

Posted on by Jesse Freeman (Upstate)

Bull thistle, Cirsium horridulum, has a disk flower head without ray flowers. Photo Credit: Chuck Hubbuch

by Chuck Hubbuch

Symbolism and Popularity

When reading about the symbolism of daisies, terms like “innocence” and “purity” frequently appear. In modern culture, the daisy is considered a simple, modest flower—a flower of the people. In general, daisies are easy to grow, and some are even considered weedy. However, botanically, daisies are anything but simple. This is a fascinating and complex group of plants.

Botanical Complexity

Goldenrods, Solidago spp., have large clusters of individual flowers. Photo Credit: Chuck Hubbuch

Broadly speaking, daisies belong to the family Asteraceae. This is a huge plant family. With about 32,000 species around the world, it rivals the orchids as the largest plant family. Members of this family are found on every continent but Antarctica. Daisies may be found from the coast to the mountains and from swamps to deserts. A few grow as epiphytes high on tropical tree branches, and some grow as submerged aquatics. They may be small, ground-hugging annuals, shrubs, vines, or trees. Daisy trees in the tropics can grow over one hundred feet tall. Lettuce, artichoke, and sunflowers are important agricultural crops. Dandelions, cat’s ears, and others may grow as weeds in our lawns. Chrysanthemums, cosmos, dahlias, marigolds, and zinnias are widely grown in gardens around the world. The daisy family serves a wide variety of pollinators, browsers, seed eaters, and other plant-eating animals around the world. It is difficult to walk anywhere without stumbling across a member of the daisy family.

The Diversity of Daisy Flowers

The sunflower, Helianthus annuus, with a classic daisy inflorescence. Photo Credit: Chuck Hubbuch

The typical daisy “flower” is not a flower. It is an inflorescence or a cluster of flowers. In a sunflower, for example, the center disk is a dense cluster of small fertile flowers. Looking closely at the disk, you can see the yellow stamens of the open flowers. These disk flowers produce the seeds. The yellow petal-like structures that surround the disk are sterile flowers whose primary purpose is to attract pollinators. Botanists call these structures ray flowers.

Not all members of this family produce flowers in the classic daisy form. Some lack the ray flowers and produce only the disk of fertile flowers. Instead of daisies, some plants in this family produce small five-petaled, fertile flowers in clusters of various sizes. Many have clusters of colorful flowers that provide large landing pads for a wide assortment of butterflies, moths, bees, wasps, flies, and beetles. A few have single flowers. Botanically, all have a fruit that is a small, dry, nut-like cypsela that contains a single seed. The fruits may have wings, parachutes, or spines to help the seeds spread far from the parent plant.

South Carolina’s Native Daisies

Silverling, Baccharis glomeruliflora, produces flowers in small clusters. Photo Credit: Chuck Hubbuch

South Carolina is home to a wide assortment of wildflowers in the daisy family. Species and hybrids of Coreopsis, Echinacea, Helianthus, Liatris, and Rudbeckia have become garden standards recognized by the majority of gardeners around the world. Native plant enthusiasts are familiar with green-and-gold (Chrysogonum spp.), mist flower (Conoclinum spp.), fleabanes (Erigeron spp.), Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium spp.), goldenrod (Solidago spp.), native asters (Symphyotrichum spp.), and many more. While the different species grow in many different habitats, these plants are especially colorful in our fields, prairies, open woodlands, and roadsides. They attract pollinators, birds, and other wildlife to our yards. They are hosts for the caterpillars of pearl crescent butterflies, painted ladies, and several moths including the wavy-lined emerald moth.

Gardening with Daisies

Every gardener who wishes to attract pollinators and birds should plant a variety of daisies and their relatives. By incorporating a diverse array of native daisies into your garden, you not only enhance its beauty but also support local wildlife and contribute to the health of our ecosystems. At the Upstate Native Nursery, we grow many of the native plants mentioned in this article and are continually seeking new species to add to our inventory. Look for these plants at the SCNPS plant sales to add more life to your garden and help make a positive impact on our environment.