One petal at a time

Ox-Eye Daisy Love

by Genevieve Jacobs

Ox-Eye Daisy Love

Genevieve Jacobs

Ox-eye daisy flower buds can be preserved and used like capers. Try Real Wild Foods', if all your daisies have bloomed. www.realwildfoods.com  

It was a jungle. A tangled mass of man-eating invasives—wild roses, honeysuckle, bittersweet—reaching out from every direction, their sinister death-grip choking off the life of tender, more innocent forms. And underfoot, a crazy mass of grasses and weeds bolted up hip-high and so thick even intrepid dogs dared not enter.

This was what had become of our sweet little yard, left to the care of a gardener friend while my husband and I hiked in the Midwest last May. The gardener never showed up, but the wild things sure did, and it was not a pretty sight, save for one delightful little plant. There, scattered among this snarled, matted mess, dancing in the breeze and smiling at the sun, was the ox-eye daisy. More than a few of these plants now dotted the landscape, adding a tidy, bright counterpoint to the confused jumble that was now our yard—a tidy, bright, edible counterpoint.

The ox-eye daisy, Chrysanthemum leucanthemum, is a member of Asteraceae, the sunflower family. Like many alien invasive species, the ox-eye hitched a ride over to the Northeast from Europe, and can now be found everywhere in the USA and on nearly every continent on the globe. It thrives in once disturbed soil, which explains its presence in fields, pastures, and roadsides, and can be found in the company of plants such as plantain, common evening primrose, and black-eyed Susan, to name a few.

This attractive invader is easy to recognize when it’s in bloom. Who hasn’t admired the innocent beauty of a daisy? What young child hasn’t plucked its beautiful white petals, one by one, until only the cheerful yellow center remained, chanting, “(s)he loves me, (s)he loves me not”? The ox-eye is not only candy for the eye, it’s pretty sweet for the palate, too, and being able to recognize it at every stage of growth is key to enjoying this plant to the fullest.

The ox-eye daisy begins life as one of about 1,300 to 4,000 seeds from a single plant. Most of these seeds fall near the parent plant and germinate; what appears to be a single plant may actually be a dense rosette consisting of many individual plants, each of which produces a single flower on a stem up to two feet high. Although the young stems, leaves, flower buds, and white ray petals are all edible, the leaves of the basal rosette are worth getting to know, as they are edible from early spring to late fall—indeed, whenever you can findthem. Their flavor is distinctly sweet and difficult to describe. Of all the descriptions I’ve read, Samuel Thayer’s (author of The Forager’s Harvest: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants), “between a salad green and a seasoning,” rings most true. I find they have a slightly peppery aftertaste, which my husband never detects; he thinks they’re simply “yum.” Since the flavor of this plant is so strong and distinctive, its best use is as a trail nibble or as a unique addition to salads, sandwiches, or wherever the imagination leads. Linda Runyon, author of The Essential Wild Food Survival Guide, adds the white petals to gelatin desserts, so I thought it might be fun to add a dandelion flower center with the white ray petals surrounding it—flower-power on jello!

My jungle story ends with a taming by lawnmower, but I left a few plants because they made me smile. So the next time you see an ox-eye, try it. Whether you love it or love it not, it might make you smile, too.