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19 August 2020

They might pass for humble flowers, but daisies are one of the largest of all plant families

With over 20,000 species, there’s a daisy for everyone.

By Stefan Buczacki

Quite frequently, I am asked to suggest flowers for people who wish to plant something to mark a family event: a christening or other naming ceremony, a birthday or wedding. The only consideration is that the plants recommended must bear the name of the person being honoured. But as I struggle to mark some worthy occasion in the lives of Dereks, Traceys and Terrys, I often find myself regretting the decline in the frequency with which parents name their daughters Daisy. For in a family of more than 20,000 species, not to mention many more cultivated varieties, there really is a daisy for everyone. And some of the loveliest are now adding to the display in my big herbaceous border.

Daisies are one of the largest of all plant families, occurring throughout the world, and covering a vast range in size, shape and form from tiny insignificant tundra alpines to large tropical trees. What pass for flowers in daisies are in reality inflorescences made up of many tiny individual blooms. And although this basic form is manifest in a number of different ways, the typical and instantly recognisable daisy flower has a central button-like group of tubular female flowers surrounded by rows of male flowers, each with a single “petal”. The two types of flowers are often called disk florets and ray florets.

Most daisy flowers are fairly small and achieve their impact through massed effect. I know there are exceptions in the shape of sunflowers and giant decorative dahlias, but the appearance of yellow and white lawn daisies is more typical of the group. If I had to single out the feature of daisies that is most responsible for their enduring appeal, it would be the combination of a familiarity of form and a superb colour range. For I can’t think of any colour that isn’t satisfied by one daisy or another, the rarest probably being vivid blue. Perfume is not a strong feature of the family and this is because the flower shape and colour are so effective at attracting pollinating insects that added fragrance is not important.

But back to my herbaceous border. It is there that the daisy family offers the most delights, and I am constantly amazed by the paucity of plants on offer at a typical garden centre. Even among the common types, the best kinds aren’t always available. Take Michaelmas daisies, which belong to the genus Aster: inexplicably, many of the varieties on offer are the old, mildew-prone kinds. I concentrate instead on two that stay disease-free: the fairly compact and low growing Aster thomsonii and the varieties of Aster x frikartii such as “Mönch”.

There’s another great example of late-flowering daisies, even better and even more valuable with their brown, red, orange and yellow colours, so redolent of late summer and early autumn. They are the Heleniums. They also fly against the daisy norm in having a fragrance, and an unusually spicy and sultry one. So often, however, unnamed varieties of a nondescript muddy brown are on offer – a great shame when there are such richer forms as the yellow “Butterpat” and the bronze-red “Moorheim Beauty”.

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 So for all the women called Daisy, Aster or even Helenium, there are many splendid flowers out there just for you. To be honest, I have never met a Helenium, but did in fact once know a girl named Aster, although she was always called Poppy by her friends, which seemed a terrible shame.