Dawn of the daisy
Evoking fond childhood memories, this simplest of flowers provides late-summer colour
Ask a child to draw a picture of a flower and the result will inevitably bear a resemblance to a daisy. We perceive them to be the simplest of flowers - a stem with a circular centre surrounded by a garland of petals.
They have a basic prettiness and innocence, probably because they evoke childhood garden memories of picking them from the lawn and making daisy chains. However, the lawn daisy is but one of a rather massive family, the asters, which has over 23,000 different species and can be found all over the world, from polar to tropical regions.
Did you know that lettuce belongs to the daisy family? We grow it for its edible leaves but if you have ever let it flower to collect seed, you will see that it has small yellow daisy flowers.
The majority of daisy flowers are instantly recognisable by that central disc and surrounding petals that radiate like sun rays. The name 'daisy' is believed to be from the Old English daes eage, meaning 'day's eye', referring to the way the flower opens at dawn. At this time of year, many daisies such as dahlias, chrysanthemums and heleniums play an important role in our gardens, providing late-summer blossoms right through to early autumn.
My favourite late-summer daisy can be seen now. It's Echinacea purpurea or the coneflower (pictured below). You'll recognise its picture from products in your local pharmacy or health store, where it is sold as an immune booster and relief for cold and flu symptoms.
In gardens, it's a key element in the planting style known as New Perennial, developed by Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf in the 1980s. This informal way of planting mixes North American prairie natives and grasses and is widely used in contemporary schemes today.
E. purpurea has a rusty-orange central cone and purple petals, and is attractive to bees and butterflies.
Due to its popularity, breeders have been busy making varieties in different colours - 'White Swan' is very elegant and 'Tomato Soup' creates a vivid, warm red splash. Plant in well-drained soil, preferably in full sunshine.
More traditional British border examples are asters, or Michaelmas daisies. These are invaluable for providing flowers in September and October. However, many are susceptible to mildew so it's best to choose mildew-resistant varieties - Aster novi-belgii are prone to mildew but the New England asters, A. novae-angliae, have good resistance. 'Little Carlow' is a popular variety at the moment - it forms lovely mounds of gorgeous violet-blue flowers - no staking or spraying required. Aster x frikartii 'Monch' is also a reliable variety with lavender-blue flowers - just make sure you keep it watered during dry spells in the summer and you'll enjoy loads of flowers in the autumn.
Sunflowers are annuals grown from seed planted in situ in March and April. These too are from the daisy family. I'm looking forward to judging the tallest sunflower in a competition soon. They're always a fun addition to the garden and a good way of getting children interested in growing from seed. There are some interesting cultivars such as 'Claret', which produces delicious chocolatey-coloured blooms.
Sunflowers have had great importance economically in the production of sunflower oil and seeds.
They make great cut flowers and, like many daisies, they attract beneficial insects, which will in turn eat less desirable insects such as aphids. Calendulas, also in the daisy family, are good for attracting hoverflies, lacewings and ladybirds, which will hoover up aphids, whiteflies and black fly. For this reason, they are often planted in veg patches and beside tomato plants. They also look very pretty - 'Indian Prince' is a spicy orange variety; just sow in situ either this autumn or next spring.
My final daisy selection is a lesser- known species but one that I have been spotting with increasing frequency at the back of herbaceous borders.
It's very tall - up to two metres and has large paddle-like leaves, so if you like something dramatic, Silphium perfoliatum might be for you. It has yellow daisy flowers which appear in midsummer and last through to autumn. It has very robust stems - in my garden, it hasn't required staking but may do in more windy or exposed areas.
But back for a moment to the most common daisy, the ones that grow so easily in our lawns: we spend so much time and energy trying to eradicate them.
Maybe it's time to reassess and begin to appreciate this simplest of garden flower even if it pops up where you'd rather it didn't. More daisies and less weed- killer for me!