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Fresh as a daisy family.

Daisy, daisya i am sure that the old music hall song was never intended to be linked with the peculiarities of a family of garden plants but, in vernacular language, daisy is used to describe the family Compositae (syn. Asteraceae).

Of all the plant families, this one has representation of almost every type of plant among its 1,300 genera and 21,000 species, from small insignificant annuals to full-grown trees and climbers.

There are a number of food plants represented, with one or two surprises and many plants with herbal and medicinal properties that have become an important part of our lives.

Inevitably, there are some nasty weed species tucked away in the lists of representative plants and quite a number of the plants have been identified as poisonous.

So, what about the family name - how does it fit with this diverse and complex family?

If you take any flower from this family, you will be able to break it down into a large number of small florets that, for the most part, are complete with male and female parts and have the ability to produce seed.

The next time that you play clocks using a dandelion seed head with your child or grandchild, take note of what happens - each seed and its parachute breaks off from a central plate known as the capitula and floats away on the wind.

This construction of the flower is what gives the family its name - a composition of florets.

Some of our best performing herbaceous perennials are members of this family and I am sure that you will recognise the similarities in asters, solidago, erigerons, dahlias, chrysanthemums, doronicums, helianthus, rudbeckias and osteospermums.

The only clear differences are the double flowers of dahlias and chrysanthemums, where every floret has a distinct petal, and the single flowers of osteospermum and rudbeckia, where only the outer florets have petals, leaving the typical daisy appearance in the centre of the flower.

The food plants provided by the Compositae family are a rather strange mixture of sublime and ridiculous.

Our common lettuce, Lactuca sativa, is one of the commonest vegetables for all of us and we seldom see it in flower unless we grow too many in the vegetable garden and let the older ones bolt to seed.

At the other end of the market, often only seen in cordon bleu restaurants, globe and Jerusalem artichokes, cynara and helianthus respectively, are more spectacular representatives of the family.

Buy a good muesli these days and you are sure to find sunflower, Helianthus annus, seeds mixed in and, if you feed the birds with wild bird seed mixes, sunflower seeds will feature highly.

If you are fond of sharper tastes in your salads, you might have used endives and chicory, both forms of Cichorium.

Among the summer annuals, there are lots of daisy family plants to choose from and their flowering ability is second to none in sunny locations.

Ageratum, bidens, felicia, calendula, tagetes, cosmos, gazania and helichrysum are all worth searching out and will reward you with bright blues, yellows, reds and oranges that few other families can provide.

Many members of the family have aromatic foliage and they have often been put to medicinal, insecticidal and industrial uses.

The insecticide chemical pyrethrum is extracted from the flowers of tanacetum and the border perennial anthemis tinctoria provides a yellow dye.

The well known chamomile tea herbal tea comes from Chamaemelum nobile and the common yarrow, Achillea millefolium, provides an important source of medicine for a wide variety of ailments.

Most of our gardens will have at least one weed representative of the Compositae family. With their often wind-distributed seed they can leap over the garden fence from one property to another without help from us.

Dandelions are perhaps the commonest but groundsel, pineapple weed, mayweed, thistles, ragwort, yarrow and coltsfoot can annoy us just as easily.

In next month's family series I will be looking at one of the commonest tree families, Betulaceae. You will be amazed at what is in there.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Huddersfield Daily Examiner (Huddersfield, England)
Date:Oct 25, 2005
Previous Article:Thurstonland's Sunday best.
Next Article:Topical Garden Hints.

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