Thursday, 24 May 2012

In praise of the empress of flowers

One of the horse fields north of the village is empty just now - empty of horses that is. Instead it is filled with drifts of wild flowers, taking advantage of the respite. Chief among them are the daisies, spreading in wide pools of pink-tinged white across the close-cropped turf, speckled with canary-yellow creeping buttercups and pale blue speedwells. A glorious sight.

In some people's eyes, of course, these would be weeds, not wild flowers. Weeds because ubiquitous, rather than because they were growing 'in the wrong place'. We are very good at dismissing the common as dull, not worthy of note, boring. But we do so at our peril. Cowslips, orchids, snakes-head fritillaries - all now treasured, rare and celebrated wild flowers - were once common-as-weeds.

Luckily for the daisy, it has many supporters too - a lot of them under 10 years old. They are special for them because they are so common, not despite it. Daisies are surely the first flower most of us learn to identify as children. We draw them, pick them with our toes, make daisy chains from them - and love them for their simple beauty.

A symbol of innocence then - but deceptively complicated too. As members of the Compositeae family, a daisy is not actually one flower, but many. Each petal is a flower in its own right, as is each tiny fleck if gold in its centre. In effect every flowerhead is really a meadow. And its common name, daisy, comes from 'day's eye' - a nod to its habit of opening at dawn and closing at dusk, revealing the dip-dyed fuchsia pink edges of its underpetals as it does so.

Its scientific name, Bellis perennis, however, seems to have a much darker story. Bellis means 'in time of war' in Latin, and refers to the Romans' practice of pounding up the plants to extract the sap, which was used as a poultice for battle wounds. So its obviously a flower with a long history of living with humans.

Of course daisies aren't threatened - yet. But like the sparrows that disappeared from London, or the poppies that have vanished from our fields, who knows whether there may come a time when daisies no longer sprinkle our lawns and pastures with summer. It may be worth taking the time to really look at them while you can.

And if you need further convincing, I'm clearly not the only one who thinks daisies are worth looking at. I found this quoted in Richard Mabey's Flora Britannica, (translated) from Geoffrey Chaucer's (1343 - 1400) Legend of Good Women:

Of all the flowers in the meadow
Then love I most this flower white and red
Such as men call daisies in our town...
The empress and flower of flowers all.

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