It's Day's Eye Time

"Summer wouldn't be summer without daisies," the New England naturalist Hal Borland wrote in our book A Countryman's Flowers, and of course the wildflower he had in mind was the ox-eye daisy, which is making its annual appearance in the Hudson Valley where I live. "The daisy's name," he explained, "comes from 'day's eye' and refers to the yellow center, which folklore represented as the sun." But ox-eye? That's a puzzle, since as Hal pointed out an oxen's eyes are usually brown.

Ox-eye daisies. (By Les Line)

I know that some folks would label the ox-eye daisy an obnoxious weed rather than a treasured wildflower. Like so many of the plants that decorate our roadsides and meadows in summer and fall, this is a vigorous alien species that arrived in North American with settlers from the Old World. The daisy found a niche where it could thrive, spreading through copious seed production and underground stems. Dairy farmers, for example, will tell you that if cows eat the daisies, their milk will have a unpleasant taste.

Yet the beauty of this wild chrysanthemum, with white rays encircling a dimpled golden disk of both male and female flowers, is hard to deny. (A wild foods company in Canada collects, marinates and bottles those tiny flower buds, marketing them as Ox-Eye Daisy Capers.) North Carolina, it should be noted, plants ox-eye daisies to beautify the state's roadsides. Alas, most state, county and town highway departments practice a scorched-earth policy when it comes to roadside vegetation, both native and exotic. Mowing machines and herbicides are aggressively used to keep nature at bay both for the sake of appearance and excessive concern for safety. Daisies and other flowers are slashed down almost as soon as they appear. "Mower mania" is so extreme in our town that native ferns along a single-lane, dirt mountain road are attacked with vengeance three or four times every summer.

A few years ago I talked to Bonnie Harper-Lore, a landscape architect with the Federal Highway Administration. "Since the 1930s," she said, "America's roadsides have been maintained as if they were the nation's front lawns." A mowing once every five years, Harper-Lore claimed, is sufficient to discourage growth of hazardous shrubs and trees." But try to tell that to your local road maintenance crew. Their first concern is people losing jobs. As one county highway official boasted when I brought up the subject of botanical riches on the rights-of-way, "We mow the bejesus out of them."

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