Sunday, July 28, 2019

Plant Story--Ox-Eye Daisy, Leucanthemum vulgare,

ox-eye daisy, Leucanthemum vulgar
ox-eye daisy, Leucanthemum vulgare
The daisy (see photo) was probably the first flower I could recognize. Daisies grew all over the fields of central Pennsylvania and upstate New York where I was a small child. To me they represented "flowers."

I have since discovered this daisy is a European plant naturalized all over North America--a weed--and that it is not "the daisy" but the ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) because another plant was England's "the daisy," the smaller plant I used to call lawn daisy, Bellis perennis (below) when I noticed it al all.
lawn daisy, Bellis perennis
daisy, lawn daisy, Bellis perennis
The ox-eye daisy is so common and widespread there are lots of interesting stories about it.

Consider the phrase, "fresh as a daisy." Clearly the bright white-and-yellow flowers so impressed people that being like a daisy was a compliment. "White as a daisy" is another comparison that goes well back into history. Beyond the obvious, in medieval England, a pale complection (and a clean face) represented wealth (laborers were tanned and dirty) so "white as a daisy" was a compliment, not a suggestion that one should get outdoors more.

You know the charm of determining if a boyfriend/girlfriend is serious by picking a flower and one by one pulling off the petals: "he loves me; he loves me not; he loves me..." until you the last petal reveals the truth? I associate that with ox-eye daisy, allthough Oxfort Book of Plant Lore found that in England "love divination" was more often reported for the daisy (lawn daisy, Bellis) than the ox-eye daisy.

A daisy chain is a series of flowers linked together, usually by slitting the stem of one to insert the stem of the next, which creates (quickly wilting) bracelets, necklaces and chaplets. I don't remember making daisy chains of ox-eye daisies but rather of white clover (Trifolium repens, pea family Fabaceae)).  The term is certainly familiar and applies both to ox-eye daisies and (lawn) daisies.

small daisy chain
small daisy chain linking five flowers
Ox-eye daisy is native to Europe but prehistorically spread across Eurasia and in the 1500s, around the world. It is found all across North America and in many parts of the U.S. and Canada is a troublesome (noxious) weed. 

Because it has been so common for so many years, it has lots of common names and those tell a lot about the plant. Those names, which I collected from British, U.S. and Canadian sources, include Baldur's brow, bruisewort, bull's eye, butter daisy, dog daisy, dun daisy, field daisy, goldens, marguerite, marguerite blanche, maudlin daisy, maudlinwort, May weed, mid-summer daisy, moondaisy, moon flower, moon-penny, poorland flower, poverty weed, St. John's flower, thunder flower,  and white weed. Spelling can vary too: ox-eye, for example, appears as ox eye and oxeye; I am using ox-eye because the Flora of North America does. 

ox-eye daisy

Many of the common names relate the flower to an eye; ox-eye daisy and bull's eye and likely moon flower, for example. Daisy itself is derived from "day's eye." What the Oxford English Dictionary says is "Old English dæges éage day's eye, eye of day, in allusion to the appearance of the flower, and to its closing the ray, so as to conceal the yellow disk, in the evening, and opening again in the morning." I  have looked on two occasions to see if the daisies closed at night and have not seen it. 

Ox-eye daisies are very variable, in leaf shape, in whether there are scallops in the leaf, in number of flowerheads per stalk, in chromosome number, and much more. So perhaps closing at night varies. 

The name marguerite is an historical reference. Margaret of Anjou (biography) used ox-eye daisies as her emblem when she left home in Anjou to marry Henry VI (1445) and become queen of England. His rule was disputed, creating the War of the Roses and Margaret led Lancastrian troops in her husband's defense, her emblem the ox-eye daisy flying on all her banners. The flower was therefore called marguerite for Queen Margaret. (There are other plants called marguerites, for example the quite similar-looking Paris marguerite, Argyranthemum frutescens (photos)).

Poorland flower and poverty weed refer to its ability to grow in waste areas. Ox-eye daisies are hardy plants, growing well in quite poor conditions. This is great for making degraded areas flower but is part of what makes the ox-eye daisy such an aggressive weed, worldwide.

ox-eye daisies

Thunder flower and dun daisy relate to an association with the thunder god, probably Thor, possibly Jupiter. I could find no other details. Baldur's brow is a very complimentary name. Baldur was a Norse god, brother of Thor, described in the Prose Edda as 
... good things are to be said of him. He is best, and all praise him; he is so fair of feature, and so bright, that light shines from him. A certain herb is so white that it is likened to Baldr's brow; of all grasses it is whitest, and by it thou mayest judge his fairness, both in hair and in body. — Brodeur's translation (quoted from Wikipedia)

Wikipedia says the herb called Baldur's brow in Norway and Sweden is scentless mayweed (Tripleruospermum inodorum) (picture) while in Iceland sea mayweed (Matricaria/Tripleurospermum maritima) (picture) is called by that name. Grieve, writing of England, gives Baldur's brow as an old name for ox-eye daisy. All three plants have very similar flower heads, white petals on the ray florets around yellow disc florets. Note they also share the common name May weed. 

Plants named for the Norse and Celtic gods were renamed by Christians, so ox-eye daisy is also St. John's flower. St. John's day was June 24, just about midsummer, matching the name mid-summer daisy. Maudlin daisy and maudlinwort refers to St. Mary Magdalen In Roman times the ox-eye daisy was associated with the goddess Artemis in her role as goddess of women and the plant was used to treat "women's complaints," so calling it maudlin daisy Christianizes those beliefs.

Bruisewort refers to its herbal uses in lotions for wounds, bruises and other skin lesions. 

White weed is of course descriptive, but ox-eye daisy can become very abundant, turning whole fields white.

So the common names often speak to its characteristics.

ox-eye daisy, Leucanthemum vulgare

The scientific name is properly Leucanthemum vulgare. The species epithet vulgare means common not vulgar. You can see the scientific name given as Chrysanthemum leucanthemum. That is wrong because long ago ox-eye daisy was split out of the genus Chrysanthemum and put in its own genus, Leucanthemum. (The species epithet had to change then because botanists don't allow double names, such as Leucanthemum leucanthemum. Zoologists do.) Furthermore, when the plants we call chrysanthemums came from Asia they become so popular that in 1995 a special act of the International Association for Plant Taxonomy gave the scientific name Chrysanthemum to the Asian species and gave new names to all the European still called Chrysanthemum, but by then ox-eye daisy had been Leucanthemum vulgare for many years. 
daisy inflorescence showing florets
Disc florets in the center, yellow on top,
ray florets around the edge are green with one big white petal
Ox-eye daisies are in the aster family, Asteraceae, also called the Compositae, with asters, sunflowers and thousands more. It is second largest plant families, with over 25,000 species, found all over the world. Flowers in this family are massed together into flowerheads (called inflorescences) so the daisy "flower" is actually a large number of flowers (called florets). In the center of an ox-eye daisy inflorescence, the florets, disc florets, are yellow and have no petals. Around the outside, the ray florets each contribute one white petal. Separated from all the others, individual ray florets look pretty odd.)
ray floret of Leucanthemum vulgare
Single ray floret. The flower is the green part at the lower right,
the large white area is its petal
(less than a half inch long)

Closely related to the ox-eye daisy, with similar inflorescences of white ray florets and yellow disc florets are a number of plant species, including the daisy (Bellis), mayweeds (Matricaria and Tripleurospermum), marguerites (genus Argyranthemum), the pyrethrum daisy (Tanacetum) and others, all often called daisies. 

In the ox-eye daisy, the disc florets are "perfect," having both stamens (male) and stigma (female), but those generally open at different times, so insect visitors cause cross-pollination within the flower head. The ray florets produce pollen but no seeds, so are unisexual. An inflorescence produces 100-250 seeds, so a single plant can produce thousands of seeds (the record is 26,000 for one plant in one year). They can lie dormant in the soil for years (at least 20). Once they get in as a weed, they keep coming up for years.

Lots of diverse insects are attracted to the showy flower heads. Stop and watch the daisies.

The new leaves are edible, but very strongly-flavored; the flowers can also be eaten but are relatively tasteless (see Zachos in references, or, online, delishably). However, few foraging books include ox-eye daisy.

The ox-eye daisy was never a major medicinal herb but it was well-regarded for treating bruises and was taken internally for coughs (the flowers) and to control night sweats (roots). It doesn't appear in most modern herbal-medicine books. (The traditional English herbal literature on daisies mostly used the daisy, Bellis perennis, but the literature is confused because for a long time Americans call the ox-eye, Leucanthemum vulgare, "daisy" and read European writings about daisies as referring to the ox-eye daisy. Today, Americans are starting to use the English terms, so when some American websites say daisy they mean Bellis. It is pretty ambiguous unless a scientific name is mentioned.) 

If you go back to the Middle Ages, when physicians applied the Doctrine of Signatures--that a plant looked like what it was supposed to treat because God marked the plants so humans would know how to use them--daisies were used to treat eye problems. 

ox-eye daisy, Leucanthemum vulgare

There are lots of little snippets of folklore. 

Not only can ox-eye daisies be used for love divination and daisy chains, to dream of your lover, put your shoes outside the door and daisy roots under your pillow.

If your dreams include daisies in the spring is good luck; to do so in the fall is bad luck.

Eating daisy roots was supposed to stunt your growth, so roots were fed to puppies to create lapdogs. (I found no indication that that worked at all. )

A Celtic legend says the daisies are spirits of children who died at birth, so the flowers are scattered across the fields to comfort grieving parents.

It is clearly a love herb: 

The person who picks the first daisy of the season will all year display a "spirit of coquetry" beyond all control.

Sleep with a daisy under your pillow to bring your absent lover back to you.

Wear a daisy to draw love to you. 

ox-eye daisy, Leucanthemum vulgare

Comments and corrections welcome.

References (giving credit to my sources)
Clements, D. R., D. E. Cole, S. Darbyshire, J. King and A. McClay. 2004. The biology of Canadian weeds. 128. Leucanthmum vulgare Lam. Canadian Journal of Plant Science. 84: 343:363. link
Cunningham, S. 1993. Cunningham's Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs. Llewllyn Publications, St. Paul, Minnesota. 
"daisy, n.". OED Online. June 2019. Oxford University Press. (accessed July 24, 2019).
Durant, M. 1983. Who Named the Daisy? Who Named the Rose? Congdon and Weed, Inc. New York.
Grieve, M. 1931. A Modern Herbal. Dover reprint, New York. online
Innes, M. and C. Perry. 1997. Medieval Flowers. Kyle Cathie Ltd. London.
Kristinsson, H. 1987. A Guide to the Flowering Plants and Ferns of Iceland. Örn og Örlygur Publishing House, Reykjavik, Iceland.
Leucanthemum vulgare Lamarck  Flora of North America
Lust, J. 1974. The Herb Book. Bantam Books, Toronto. 
Martin, L.C. 1987. Garden Flower Folklore. Globe Pequot Press, Chester, Connecticut.
Mitich, L. W. 2000. Oxeye daisy (Chrysanthemum leucanthemum L.) the white-flowered gold flower. Weed Technology. 14: 659-642. 
Vickery, R. 1996. Oxford Dictionary of Plant Lore, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Zuchos, E. 2013. Backyard Foraging. Storey Publishing, North Adams, Massachusetts.

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist


  1. Loved learning the origins of the scientific name and all of these common names!
    Daisy comes from day's eye and maudlin comes from Mary Magdalen- fun to know these things. And the Doctrine of Signatures pointing to the daisy as an treatment for eye disorders seems like a natural fit. Thank you for sharing all this great information.

  2. Loved learning about the folklore behind daisies. Thank you for your thorough research and well written work. Loved it!

  3. I chanced upon this blogpost whilst I was looking for the differences between German camomile, lawn daisy and oxeye daisy. Thank you for sharing this; it was a very enjoyable read.