Lazy daisy days of summer

Steffie Shields highlights some favourite daisies to uplift late summer borders.
Remember those seemingly endless summer afternoons of childhood, those marvellous holidays, with nothing much to do but sit on a patch of cool, newly mown grass and make daisy chains?

Once my sister Susan demonstrated the process, I soon got the knack of splitting the stalk with a (probably grubby) fingernail to make a small slit. Then, ever so carefully, I threaded the soft stem through, as if the eye of an embroidery needle, till its tiny daisy head was held fast, before repeating the process, again and again. Never mind, if the flowers soon wilted, it was fun to make a dangling daisy chain as a fairy bracelet for my baby doll, or a floral crown for my teddy bear.

‘Daisy’ is derived from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning – day’s eye. This little flower opens and closes with the sun, reminiscent of an eye opening in the morning and closing at night. Its distinctive, white petals unfurl like pink-tinged rays around a yellow central disc, each flower as if a miniature sun, just like our childish colourings. Also known as Bellis perennis, the Latin for pretty and everlasting, it reminds me of my first attempts at embroidery.

Wild ‘oxeye’ daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) with long, white ray petals and a yellow disc are just as resilient and ubiquitous. One cannot imagine today’s richly appreciated native wildflower meadow from May through to September without their bright yellow centres attracting pollinators. In medieval times, the English daisy was known as ‘Mary’s Rose’, perhaps the nicest of its many common names: oxeye daisy, dog daisy, field daisy, moon daisy, moon-penny, and poor-land penny.

Even if some countries continue to class them as weeds, I welcome a patch or two of moon daisies in the wilder parts of my orchard garden, letting them seed freely wherever serendipity takes them. An edible plant, its leaves add a slightly pungent flavour to salads; the flower heads have been used to make tea. Interestingly, given the current Covid-19 pandemic, Leucanthemum in traditional medicines helped to treat coughs and asthma.

After the rose, the daisy must surely come high on the list of all-time most popular flowers – from sunflowers through to Michaelmas daisies. There are literally hundreds of types, most making excellent cut-flowers to decorate your home. The shaggier ‘Shasta’ daisies (Leucanthemum x superbum) are often smothered with narrow white petals. Many varieties of these clump-forming perennials thrive in herbaceous borders in full sun. They benefit from both feeding and dead heading to encourage further blooming. I remember my mother used to say that her favourite flower was the half-hardy ‘Marguerite’ (Argyranthemum frutescens). She was born in Quebec, where, I recently learned, Saint Marguerite was an adventurous nun who, in the 17th century, set up schools throughout the surrounding wilderness.

Marguerites with silvery, cut-leaf foliage are perfect for summer pots and can be trained as lollipop trees which make perfect decorations for summer weddings, or to stand either side of the front door step. They include those single-flowered, yellow or lime green centred, happy-making, cheerful flower chrysanthemums that are ideal for gift bouquets.

Let’s not forget the wonderful airy annual daisy-like Cosmos, grown from seed in shades of white, red and pink, with its finely dissected, feathery foliage – one of my top plants to boost and regenerate the late summer garden.

With many plants imported from abroad, Europe reversed the process, by introducing oxeye daisies into America and Australia. Daisies now grow on every continent except Antarctica. Whereas yellow daisies, Heleniums, originate from the Americas – named after Helen of Troy, the daughter of Zeus in Greek mythology – Inula Helenium is a flowering herb native to Eurasia, and used since Roman times as both medicine and condiment. Each flower displays up to a hundred narrow yellow rays around a deeper gold disc.

Many Heleniums today have velvety brown centres with florets of orange or deep red, but I recommend attractive, sunshine yellow Jerusalem artichoke daisies (H. tuberosus) to brighten the late summer border through to early autumn. They are low maintenance, require no staking and are deer-resistant. Their tubers are still grown in America, as a nutritious, potato like crop with no starch and tasting of artichoke. I have yet to sample a root!

What can be more heart-warming than golden ‘black-eyed Susans’, those Rudbeckia daisies? Butterflies and birds adore them too! Sometimes, being massed together makes them susceptible to powdery mildew, so best to keep them well spaced or thinned out. Often referred to as ‘coneflowers’, strictly speaking that common name is more typically applied to Echinacea, such as the tough purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) seen woven amongst grasses in popular prairie planting combinations. More recently, hybridisers have produced more compact varieties, perfect for smaller gardens or for use in patio containers. Last summer, our daughter Gady treated us to Echinacea ‘Amazing Dream’ and Echinacea ‘Satisfy’, soon smothered in approving butterflies. I wonder whether she chose them for their names. Sadly, they rotted in the winter.

Daisies make useful gap-fillers, whether pristine white, or rich warm tones of yellow through orange pink to plum and purple. If I had to choose my favourite, I think it would be the African daisy, Osteospermum. The many varieties and colours of this hardy, shrubby, semi-succulent are easy to grow, whether in full sun or semi-shade, and wonderfully reliable despite its tendency to trail over the path or pot edge. A swift clipping ‘around the ears’ soon sorts it out! Each single upturned face makes me want to stoop to look closer into its blue eye, especially when it sheds and is dotted with bright orange pollen. The surrounding rays of petals are often brushed with pink or purple – nature ever the artist.

Some years ago, I came across another pretty, if larger, African daisy growing in the gardens of the Garden Museum in Lambeth, London; its white petals tinged with pale to deep mauve, its inner disc dark purple. I suspect this unusual ‘Thistle Daisy’ (Berkheya purpurea) had been introduced by Chelsea Gold-winning garden designer Dan Pearson! Yes, it is a prickly plant, but if you like growing something different, this makes a surprisingly beautiful addition to the front of the summer border to wow your visitors – and the bees!

Even if the rain pours, and the sun plays ‘hide and seek’ behind the clouds, with daisies in your garden, I guarantee that you, your children and grandchildren will feel much happier!

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