Easter Daisy — April 2010

Easter daisy flowers

Those who walk the Preserve in the spring with eyes carefully scanning the surface of the ground are occasionally rewarded by a bright clump of flowers appearing to emerge directly from the earth. What might look like a bouquet of silk flowers that had been cut off near the top with its stem stumps stuck straight into the ground is actually a striking spring bloomer called Easter daisy, stemless daisy, or stemless Townsend daisy. Townsendia exscapa was named to honor the American banker and botanist from West Chester, Pennsylvania, David Townsend (1787-1858). There are ten species of the genus Townsendia that are native in New Mexico; the species name exscapa refers to the absence of visible stems in this species from the Latin words ex (without) and scapus (a stalk). The Easter daisy can be found in dry plains, hillsides, and openings in piñon-juniper woodlands throughout much of Western North America, from Mexico to Canada.

Easter daisy plant

Easter daisy is a perennial with a thick, branching taproot. A cluster of basal leaves emerges from the root crown with a gray color owing to a covering of microscopic hairs. Individual leaves are linear, up to two inches long and about 1/8 inch in width with smooth edges and a pointed tip. Typically obscured by the flowers, the leaves are evergreen, therefore they can be observed throughout the year, after the flowering season and even during the winter months.

An array of tightly clustered flowers covers the leafy mound from March to June. Another member of our largest family of wildflowers, the Asteraceae, each Easter daisy flower is actually a head made up of dozens of tightly packed smaller individual flowers. The outer ring consists of ray flowers each sporting a single white petal about 3/4 inch long that may be tinged with lavender. The numerous inner disk flowers have a much smaller tube of yellow petals surrounding both male and female sex organs. Each floral head measures up to two inches across and the effect of several overlapping floral heads completely covering the plant is quite striking. The fruits produced by the disk flowers have rigid bristles emerging from one end that facilitate dispersal by wind.

Easter daisy flower

Easter daisies have relatively few, but quite diverse uses by Native Americans. Navajos used the plant as a gynecological aid; leaves were chewed directly or used to prepare an infusion to be taken during childbirth to ease the delivery. They were also used as part of the Navajo unraveling ceremony, a healing ritual designed to remove “ugly things” from the patient’s body. Blackfoot Indians prepared a decoction of Easter daisy roots which they gave to tired horses to help them recover.

I have come to regard the Easter daisy as a somewhat odd and mysterious plant. It has attributes of an alpine plant such as diminished stature (rarely exceeding two inches in height) and a tightly mounded growth habit, yet it grows in the desert. The bold, artificial-looking blooms appear rather out of place hugging the ground and seemingly arising out of nowhere. Adding to the unusual nature of the Easter daisy is the fact that in my experience the plants are solitary; I have yet to find multiple individuals in the same locale. So it is always a special treat to come across one of these remarkable “ground bouquets,” not only does the Easter daisy brighten my day, it invariably provides me cause to wonder.

© 2010 Jerry Melaragno

PDF of this essay here.

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