Ox-eye Daisies

(This column was first published in the June 26, 2000 Buffalo News.)

    Summer has indeed arrived and thank goodness.

    After that rain-soaked spring the beautiful first day of summer last week was a keeper. It was sunny and for a welcome change it was dry; it was also warm but not too hot and there was a refreshing breeze. As my father used to say, "It would take a mighty mean man to complain about that day."

    I spent much of the morning riding my moped around my breeding bird census blocks in Newstead, Alabama and Pembroke. It was wonderful to be out in that lovely countryside.

    This spring has not been at all easy on farmers, but it did produce a lush growth of wildflowers along those rural roadsides and across the many abandoned fields. Monarch, cabbage white and pearl crescent butterflies plied the yellow mustard and trefoil, purple vetch and red clover.

    But the most striking flowers were the ox-eye daisies. They seemed even fresher than usual that day, their beautiful halos of white surrounding central gold tonsures.

    We all know the litany of children and young lovers, "She loves me, she loves me not,..." recited as the petals are plucked in succession from that white ring but I was content to leave the lovely flowers whole on that glorious morning.

    I even like to repeat the Latin name assigned to this daisy by Linnaeus -- Chrysanthemum leucanthemum -- with its Managua, Nicaragua-like assonance. Parsing those words provides an accurate description of the daisy. In Greek "anthemom" means flower, "chrysos" gold, and "leuc" white so we have, taking a little liberty, a white-petaled gold flower.

    In truth, Linnaeus is closer to the mark than I am for those 15 to 30 white petals are actually individual flowers. Botanists refer to them as ray flowers and the hundreds of tiny yellow flowers that make up the center as disk flowers. Ray flowers are all female but there are male as well as female flowers in the disk.

    If you look closely at those tiny yellow flowers, you will see that they differ. There is a kind of bowl in the center of the disk made up of closed buds. Around them in two concentric circles are arranged first the male and then at the outside the female flowers.

    This arrangement works well for pollination. Visiting pollinators -- bees, butterflies or other insects -- tend to land near the edge of the bloom where they brush some of the pollen gathered on visits to earlier daisies onto the female stigmas. Then as they work their way inward they gather new pollen from the male anthers which they will carry to still more daisies.

    Ox-eye daisies are not native to America. They came with the colonists who sought to brighten their gardens and remind themselves of their homelands. Some credit (or blame as we shall see) John Winthrop, Jr., son of the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and later a Connecticut governor himself, for first bringing them in 1631.

    While many of us appreciate these handsome bright flowers, cattle farmers do not. Livestock shy away from their bitter taste and, by eating only the other nearby plants, give the daisies a chance to spread. Better controlled now, they used to take over and vigorously defend entire fields, making those fields useless to the farmers.

    Feverfew, a less common daisy alien with shorter white petals, is the source of the insect repellent pyrethrum, a boon to those of us who venture out on summer evenings.

    Happily, daisies will continue to bloom well into August when they will make room for their fall cousins, the asters.-- Gerry Rising