At summer’s start, I thought I’d drop my disdain for amaranth and grow stands of it so I might condescend to change my view of this seedy annual.
Instead, the amaranth spurned me. No wonder people also call it love-lies-bleeding. The tiny black grains of seed germinated in their pots, but they never developed beyond a nascent stage. I had started them too late, and the strangely dry July didn’t help.
I consoled myself by planting other heat-loving annuals: tithonias, zinnias and good old sunflowers. All three are doing nicely, all of them part of the vast flower tribe known as composites. These daisies, the largest family of flowering plants, have up to 32,000 species. The amaranth family has 800. Take that, amaranth.
The composite family, Asteraceae, includes asters. But no species projects its bold iconography more than the sunflower, outlandish in size but plain and honest in form. I’ll never forget my first glimpse of a sunflower field in the south of France, thousands of 7-footers whose happy faces moved with the sun.
The farmer planted an oilseed crop, but to me it was an art installation where the power of scale brought a surreal, transcendent quality.
Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s 2010 installation, “Sunflower Seeds,” filled the entire Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in London with 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds, handmade by 1,600 Chinese artisans. The gardener knows each seed in a plant is genetically unique.
Big sunflower varieties are too primal for me, but the smaller ones still tower over the lgarden, glowing amid heat and humidity. Had I not been distracted by amaranth, I would have planted my preferred varieties of sunflower in May: Italian White, actually a lemon yellow, or Buttercream, primrose yellow, or other 3- to 4-footers with multiple flowers and lots of branching. If you have room, plant blocks of red-flowering sunflowers, such as Moulin Rouge, Chocolate and Autumn Beauty.
The tithonia, Mexican sunflower, is tall but self-supporting, with velvety gray-green leaves topped with vibrantly orange daisies. I planted three in pots in a corner set in a triangle about 12 inches apart. They now form a generous stand, 7 feet high, 5 feet across, and covered in blooms and butterflies.
The daisy archetype is a central disk of fertile florets surrounded by a ruff of petals.
The family resemblance is obvious in coneflowers or shasta daisies. Jerusalem artichokes are lovely in flower, but their stems hide tenacious tubers. They are neither artichokes nor from Jerusalem. As with other sunflowers, they are from North America.
Some members of the clan are not so obvious. Lettuces are related to sunflowers, though few of us see them in flower when they are inedible. The thistles of Scotland are composites, as are the edelweiss of Alpine lands. Such a big clan has its rogues. Ragweed, whose pollen is clogging my sinuses, is one. So is the dandelion. In Europe, common ragwort, a pretty cluster of yellow daisies, is toxic to livestock.
But composites are some of my favorite plants. I like that what appears to be one big bloom is in fact a cluster of florets, each awaiting a bee, each ready to dance the Fibonacci waltz. I like how goldfinches rip at the seed.
Perhaps the composites’ most endearing aspect is that they come to the fore toward the end of the season when we need flowers most. Asters, goldenrods, zinnias, dahlias, chrysanthemums all take to the stage for the final act.
This family provides relatively few economically important plants. The legume has half the species but vastly more plants of se. The nightshade family has 2,600 or so species but gives us all variations of potato, tomato, eggplant, pepper and tobacco.
But let’s put use aside and take time to smell the daisies. Insects and vertebrates need these plants. Count me among those vertebrates.