Monday, October 11, 2010

Straggler Daisy

To say that my backyard is filled with straggler daisy would be an understatement.  Except during the flush of spring weeds that happens each year before the trees leaf out, my backyard is straggler daisy.  In fact, straggler daisy is one of the most common native plants in central Texas, where it grows as a ground cover at the edges of woodlands or pastures, along roadsides, and within lawns.  In city and suburban yards, where it invades gardens, takes over lawns, and grows in shady corners that would otherwise be bare, the reputation of straggler daisy is debated - invasive weed or useful, native wildflower?

Straggler daisy (Calyptocarpus vialis) is a perennial herb in the Asteraceae, or sunflower family.  It grows as a ground cover, reaching along the ground with long stems, stolons, that form roots as they grow.  The leaves are formed in pairs, with each set of leaves perpendicular to preceding set, so that the plants have a cross shape.  The blooms, tiny, miniature yellow sunflowers, appear in the center of each "cross" of leaves, one flower per upright stem.  The plant blooms March through November, and can also bloom in the winter if the temperatures remain above freezing.

Straggler Daisy (Calyptocarpus vialis)

For anyone who is trying to grow a traditional lawn, straggler daisy is a weed.  Straggler daisy is shade tolerant, so easily takes over shaded lawns, where Bermuda and St. Augustine grasses struggle.  Yet straggler daisy is also able to grow in full sun, where it intertwines itself with lawn grasses and can out-compete the grasses during a drought.  Straggler daisy spreads by underground rhizomes, and the plants tend to snap off at the base of the shoots when pulled, leaving the roots intact in the soil, ready to grow again.  And, while straggler daisy tolerates mowing, it is not adapted to mowing (the city equivalent of grazing) to the extent that grasses are, which means that a straggler-daisy lawn looks lush until it is mowed, after which it looks, well, a bit bare.

Benji is standing in the backyard, a straggler-daisy lawn, after mowing.  The yard looks neat but certainly wouldn't qualify as a "lawn" to the Hank Hills of the world.

Lucky for the straggler daisy, and maybe even luckier for me, I'm not much of a lawn aficionado, so I am grateful for the mow-able layer of greenery that the straggler daisy provides around my house.  In the years after I moved into the house, my goal was to maintain a neat yard until I had the time to make gardens.  So I didn't care if the lawn died, as long as it looked orderly.  I didn't water the lawns, or fertilize them, or weed them.  I simply cut down the shrubby or woody weeds that were too big to mow and mowed the yard when it grew.  Straggler daisy in the backyard, and a mix of straggler daisy and Bermuda grass in the front- and side-yards, have lived through heat, drought, rainstorms, weed overgrowth, and years of neglect as my low-maintenance, low-impact "lawn."

A weed is only a weed when it grows where it is not wanted, like in a garden or in a lawn.  Straggler daisy, though drought-tolerant and generally tough, is not difficult to remove from gardens.  (Removing it from lawns is another story that, obviously, is not within my realm of experience.)  A thick layer of mulch smothers straggler daisy, or individual plants can be pulled out when the ground is moist.  When the ground is dry, the plants have to be dug out, or they will snap off their roots, which will re-grow.  As a result, I don't worry about straggler daisy the way I do about Bermuda grass or bindweed.  It grows everywhere but can be removed where I no longer want it.

So - weed or wildflower?  With its tiny flowers, straggler daisy doesn't impress tourists or send hikers thumbing through their field guides.  Except to those who garden or keep a lawn, it's a relatively unknown plant, which is odd given that the answer to the question, What is straggler daisy? often is, in Austin, The stuff you're standing on.  But, up close, straggler daisy flowers add specks of yellow to a landscape, and their tiny flowers attract small butterflies.

Straggler daisy is at its best in the shade, where it generously covers ground that otherwise would be bare.  My backyard, which is shaded, would be bare and dusty without the straggler daisy.  Along the north side of the house, which is shady, cool, and rocky, straggler daisy is the only thing that grows.  I'd like to place stepping stones along that narrow strip of yard and to allow the straggler daisy to grow around the stones.  Where the soil is deep enough, I might add wood-sorrel or wild petunia, creating a shady, wildflower-lined pathway.  Along a path, in the shade, in the company of other shade-dwelling, native plants, straggler daisy will get to be the wildflower that it wants to be.

Straggler Daisy (Calyptocarpus vialis)


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