Growing the Wild Daisy Family

Growing native wildflowers in our gardens continues to gain in popularity.  Whether we are interested in the wildlife they attract or we grow them because we love their charm and simplicity, there is a good chance that the daisy family, or Compositae are represented, intentionally or not, somewhere in your garden or allotment.  Many familiar ‘weeds’ belong to this group, including the ubiquitous dandelion, so love them or hate them they are likely to be around your garden somewhere. This enormous family of plants is represented in the Britain and Northern Europe by well over 100 species and some of the composites – the knapweeds and cornflowers for example are incredibly valuable when it comes to providing nectar and pollen for our native insects. There are several that make excellent garden border plants and others that are very suitable for growing in grass alongside a sunny hedge, or in a traditional wildflower meadow.

The humble daisy (Bellis perennis) immediately comes to mind.  This is a little plant that has been seriously persecuted in the past by the ‘green lawn’ brigade!  Few things to my mind are more boring in a garden than an expanse of grass with no small flowers here and there.  A sprinkle of daisies adds charm and interest as well as attracting the odd butterfly in late spring.  The easiest way to add this sweet and often overlooked little wildflower to your garden is to beg a plant from a friend and split it up before planting.  It will require very little attention besides a little water while it establishes, will grow in any type of soil and will soon spread of its own accord.  Adapted to be grazed by animals in the wild, it is perfectly happy to be mown on a weekly basis and will brighten your lawns and grassy paths for several months.

The ox-eye daisy or moon daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) is the lawn daisy’s much larger cousin and is also capable of surviving some pretty harsh treatment.  This wildflower can remain undetected in short grass for several years but will blossom when cutting stops, producing many characteristic daisy flowers - white petalled with yellow centres - from a single plant.  It reaches a height of 60 cms or thereabouts but in a good soil in a border can rival the shasta daisy, a close relative from the Pyrenees.  The moon daisy is one of my favourite wildflowers, a herald of summer and a good butterfly plant, but many gardeners find it problematic.  If left to its own devises it will seed prolifically, especially where bare soil is available, so this is one wildflower to grow in the confines of a meadow if you wish to keep its exuberance in check.  In amongst grass it will settle comfortably, only seeding gently where the soil is exposed after an annual cut and rake.  It provides nectar for many species of butterfly and pollen for hoverflies and bees.  Some people dislike its rather unpleasant smell, reminiscent of ‘wet dog’, but its other common name of dog daisy does not actually allude to this characteristic.  Many wild plants acquired the prefix ‘dog’ which referred to their inferior nature!  Moon daisy is easy to grow from seed, needing no special treatment.  Sown in spring or autumn, it will germinate quickly and soon attain a size where it can be planted out in a border, or into an area of grass.

The last of the white flowered daisies I would recommend is the annual corn chamomile (Anthemis arvensis).  Usually confined to a mix of cornfield species, this small arable ‘weed’ is a bright, cheerful annual that always performs well.  In a mix of other annuals such as cornflower and poppy, it provides the white backdrop to the other flowers’ bright hues.  The leaves are fern-like, feathery and scented and the flowers are attractive to hoverflies, making this a good species to grow close to flowers that are prone to aphids.  Hoverflies, attracted to the pollen of the chamomile, will soon detect any aphid activity and lay eggs nearby.  The larvae soon deal with the problem, feasting on the greenfly or blackfly.  True chamomile, a similar plant to the corn chamomile, is also a native wildflower, but now rarely encountered in the countryside.

Common fleabane (Pulicaria dysenterica) is another of the daisy flowers we see in the countryside, often in damper places besides streams or ponds or in wet soil.  This is an excellent butterfly attractant, so well worth a place on the edge of your garden pond, or in clay soil that holds water in the winter months.  Unlike the previous species this one has yellow flowers, and pale green, soft, downy leaves.  It spreads via underground runners, but is never a problem.  A late summer flowerer, it looks especially attractive with spikes of purple loosestrife on a pond edge and can be easily germinated in spring from its fluffy seeds.  Like the majority of our native plants this wildflower has a use and fleabane, as the name suggests, has been used in the past to deter fleas.  The leaves are strongly scented, with a rather medicinal odour which is not exactly pleasant, so it is easy to imagine that some insects might be repelled by it.  The plant was dried and hung inside, or leaves were burned to expel the offending creatures.

The annual corn marigold (Chrysanthemum segetum) is a plant that can’t be too highly recommended for garden cultivation.  Its bright, almost orange-yellow flowers shine like the sun for many months, bringing colour into borders until October.  Like the corn chamomile it often appears in mixes of cornfield annuals, but can be grown very effectively on its own, perhaps where bare soil needs to be covered for a season.  Seed can be scattered on the soil surface and gently trodden in.  Germination is quick and reliable and nothing more needs to be done to create a bed of golden blooms, good for cutting and attractive to many types of insect, especially pollen beetles and hoverflies.  With so much pollen on display it is not surprising that these insects search out the corn marigold.  Self-seeding is inevitable so once you have established this delightful annual it is likely to be around for some time.

All these simple flowers, with their excellent insect attracting qualities, are anything but simple in design.  They all have the typical composite structure where each ‘flower’ is in fact a dense cluster of tiny florets, each one brimming with nectar.  It is no wonder that our native insects find them so irresistible.  And there are plenty more in this group – a whole range of plants that we rarely think of including in our gardens.  Some, such as the more familiar elecampane, have been introduced to our countryside as garden escapes, but the list of true natives is endless and their names are satisfyingly intriguing.  We have cudweed, aster, cat’s-foot, ploughman’s spikenard, hemp acrimony, sneezewort, yarrow, tansy and mugwort to name a few.   There are yet more to explore, including of course the thistles, dandelions and hawkweeds, but the summer daisies described here have a great deal to offer the wildlife gardener.


© Text and photographs Jenny Steel 2017