Common Name: Ox-Eye Daisy, Common Daisy, Field Daisy, Moon Daisy, Herb Margaret, Marguerite (French), Maudlinwort, Horse Gowan, Dun Daisy – The word daisy is a colloquialism of the original name ‘day’s eye’ which was given to the smaller English daisy (Bellis perennis) that opens only with the sun of daylight. The ox-eye daisy is open day and night; the alternative name ‘moon daisy’ a logical assignation. Ox-eye is a metaphor for the large, round central disc of florets; it bears little resemblance to the eye of an ox.
Scientific Name: Leucanthemum vulgare – The genus is from the Greek words for white (leukos) flower (anthemon) and the species is Latin for common (vulgaris); the overall result a mundane ‘common white flower.’ It is also sometimes listed as Chrysanthemum leucanthemum which translates as yellow (chrys) flower, white flower; this is because the original type flower for the genus has yellow petals. Chrysanthemum was recently divided and several new genera were created of which Leucanthemum was one.
Potpourri: The Ox-Eye Daisy is one of the most recognizable and beloved of all wild flowers; it is accordingly considered the epitome of the glory of nature evinced by open meadows. The large, two inch diameter singular blossoms extend up to three feet in the air on slender stems that bend with the breeze and beckon a celebration of their simple beauty. They are as iconically American as apple pie; a Daisy-Mae image of the simple honesty of countrified character. The only problem with this picture is that it is false. The ox-eye daisy is an invasive native of Eurasia that was either brought intentionally to North America by the early colonists or surreptitiously made the Atlantic passage as seeds in soil for other plants or in silage for grazing animal importation. In many areas it is considered a noxious weed; it is nonetheless a comely weed, if an oxymoron is allowed.
The original scientific name Chrysanthemum leucanthemum is more appropriate than was probably intended when coined, as the ox-eye daisy really is a ’gold flower-white flower’; it is a composite flower – a member of the family Compositae. The ‘gold flower’ central disc is actually many small flowers or florets clustered closely together. The surrounding ‘white flower’ petals are also verisimilar in that each is an involution of a flower reduced to a single petal with no vestigial reproductive faculties. One consequence of this arrangement is that it is a prodigious producer of seeds – one flower can produce over 25,000 – that are robustly resilient – over 80 percent are viably fertile after 6 years with a maximum lifetime of almost 40 years. If this were not enough, the flower also spreads vegetatively by extending rhizomes in all directions from the pioneer plant. It can supplant up to 50 percent of native grasses. The end result is that a single seed can germinate and take over an entire field in a few seasons – a harbinger of disaster to an agricultural society and a severe impediment to a pastoral one.
The ox-eye daisy was a pariah in Europe for most of recorded history, as their proliferation threatened the fecundity of the fields for necessary agricultural crops. A secondary but no less compelling problem is that bovine animals, primarily cattle but also ironically the ox, for which the flower is named, will not eat it. In Hedgemaids and Fairy Candles, Jack Sanders writes that “So despised was this plant among the Scots, who called them gools, that they appointed gool-riders to see that daisies were removed from wheat fields. The farmer found to have the biggest crop of gools had to pay a fine of a castrated ram.” While this attribution may have actually been inveighed against the corn marigold, a yellow flower that grows in corn fields, the need for eradication among agrarian communities is consistent with the nature and extent of the weed problem. Weed removal was enforced by law.
The nearly universal cultural association of the ox-eye daisy with the determination of a true love’s intentions with the familiar ‘she loves me, she loves me not’ incantation has its origins in France (the feminine version is implicit). Most citations refer to Alfred de Musset, who wrote in the 1837 novel Les Deux Maîtresses “Vous vous souvenez, madame, de ces marguerites que les enfants effeuillent brin à brin? Beaucoup, dissent-ils à la première feuille; passablement à la seconde, et à la troisième, pas du tout.” This translates loosely as ‘you know madam that the children tear the leaves of the ox-eye daisy from one end to the other, saying a lot on the first, somewhat on the second and not at all on the third.’ While de Musset may have popularized it, the custom had likely been prevalent as a children’s game for centuries. The very visible and readily available ox-eye daisy with its invitingly indeterminate yet numerous petals just begging to be plucked needs no motivation beyond serendipity. The current French version of the game is a bit more nuanced in outcome according to the choices: ‘she loves me a little, a lot, passionately, madly and not at all.’ Most of the rest of the world’s languages use a form of the binary she loves me, she loves me not. Not so the Russians, whose namesake roulette may be reflected in the choices: ‘she loves me, loves me not, spits at me, kisses me, presses me to her heart, or sends me to the devil. This could make for a very tense session of daisy plucking.
Even as the ox-eye daisy was a bane to the farmers and herdsman it was a boon to the herbalists who first catalogued the medicinal properties of wild plants. Nicolas Culpepper, the noted English physician of the 17th Century, wrote of the ox-eye daisy in his seminal Complete Herbal that it was “a wound herb of good respect, often used in those drinks and salves that are for wounds, either inward or outward” and “giveth great ease in palsy, sciatica or gout.” This assertion had its origins in folk medicine that had accreted over time based on chance encounters and observations. In ancient Greece, the ox-eye daisy was associated with Artemis (Diana in the Roman pantheon), the goddess of, among other things, hunting, virginity and childbirth – it was presumably then used as one of the innumerable preparations for what are generally referred to the ‘women’s complaints” of menstruation and parturition. The association with Artemis was transferred to Mary Magdalene in the Christian era, and the ox-eye daisy was (and sometimes still is) called Maudlinwort – the use of ‘wort’ implying its importance as a healing herb.
In current herbalist prescription, ox-eye daisy is considered to be of similar effect to chamomile in providing some inducement to sleep when night sweats prevail; however, there have been no efforts to catalogue its chemical constituents and no trials as to its efficacy as a medicine. Historically, the uses of the ox-eye daisy as an herbal treatment have been broad and imprecise, ranging from an anti-spasmodic tonic for whooping cough to a treatment for the pain associated with menses. Many references attribute a number of medicinal uses to Native American tribes. This is of dubious likelihood, as the introduced ox-eye daisy would not have become established in North America until the 18th Century near the end of the approximately ten millennia of Indian habitation. The adaptation of plants for healing does not happen overnight. While it is probably of almost no use as a medicine, it has some potential as a natural insect repellent. The ox-eye daisy contains pyrethrin, a natural organic insecticide that has been used for over a hundred years and is considered among the safest.