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Divining Daisy

By Audrey Stallsmith

chrysanthemum leucanthemum

That well by reason men calle it maie
The daisie, or else the eie of the daie.

Geoffrey Chaucer

The daisy is probably best known for the "loves me, loves me not" ditty which children chant as they pick off the petals. The superstition that the flower could discern affections was popularized in the early 1800's by Goethe's play, in which the naive Marguerite tries to determine the devil-assisted Faust's feelings for her.

Perhaps that is why the daisy is sometimes also known as marguerite, and still stands for "innocence." Or that nickname along with another, "fair maids of France," may be traced to an earlier Margaret--of Anjou. That 15-year-old princess chose a spray of daisies as her motif when she wed King Henry VI of England in 1445.

In the days of chivalry, a suitor often wore a daisy, and the courted maiden would don a garland of the flowers to indicate her answer. In Hamlet, Ophelia gives the queen a daisy, purportedly to reprove the royal female's "light and fickle love which ought not to expect constancy in a husband."

According to Celtic legend, the white blooms spring from the spirits of children who died at birth. And the weaving of daisy chains has always been a popular pastime with the younger set. So the flower came to stand for the innocence of the most Holy Child.

In much old literature, however, the daisy indicated is the European bellis perennis rather than the oxeye daisy (chrysanthemum leucanthemum) which is more common here in the States. But the pristine oxeye seems a better symbol for purity than the pinkish bellis. In the Rape of Lucerne, Shakespeare writes, "Without the bed her other faire hand was/ On the green coverlet; whose perfect white/ Showed like an April daisy in the grass. . ."

In this country, the oxeye daisy blooms in late May and June. Its official name derives from the Greek chrysos ("gold"), anthemum ("flower"), and leuc ("white"). The common name, on the other hand, comes from the Anglo-Saxon daeges-eage or "day's eye."

The flower has a host of other nicknames, including bruisewort, goldens, gowan, maudlinwort, dun daisy, moon penny, Balder's brow, Dutch morgan, poverty weed, dog blow, and priest's collar. Dun daisy derives from the flower's association with the Anglo-Saxon thunder god, moon penny from its supposed link with the goddess Artemis, and Balder's brow from its connection with the Teutonic deity of peace and light. Later, it was renamed maudelyn or maudlin in affectionate reference to St. Mary Magdalen.

The daisy has never been popular with farmers, who consider it a pernicious weed. The Scots reportedly knew it as "gool" and hired "gool-riders" to root it out of their grain fields. It did not even make good forage, since cows and pigs dislike the plant's bitter flavor.

Despite that acridity, the leaves have been used as a salad herb, even though they were believed to stunt growth. The fairy, Milkah, after stealing a royal human child, Albion, is supposed to have fed him daisy roots to keep him fairy-size!

In reality, the daisy is an effective herb. It was used in salves to treat wounds, swellings, or ulcers. According to John Heinerman, a decoction made from the flowers is good for "inner burstings" like hernias--or even appendicitis if no other medical care is available.

A tea made from the flowers will also relieve coughs and asthma, calm the nerves, and, as a compress, soothe skin eruptions or tired eyes. Daisy is a very old treatment for jaundice and other liver problems, and was once prescribed for the night-sweats of tuberculosis. Mixed with livestock bedding or hung from the rafters, dried daisy is supposed to repel flies.

It will always be a draw to romantics, however. We still wistfully associate it with the kind of faithful love portrayed in the song which promises, "I'll give you a daisy a day, dear. . .I'll love you until the rivers run still, and the four winds we know blow away."

Chrysanthemum leucanthemum image by the National Geographic Society, courtesy of the Southwest School of Botanical Medicine.