The Daisy Hereabouts

Daisies at St. Mary's, May 2014

Daisies at St. Mary’s, May 2014

A bit of floral folklore, previously unknown to me, has to do with the spread of daisies in the area during the Civil War. Perhaps some of my friends in the sciences could add some useful remarks on the matter? In any event, according to the remarks of a certain “C.G.”–whom I take to be Charlotte Gailor (a friend notes that she taught botany at Sewanee, in fact, during WWII)–recorded in the old book, Purple Sewanee,

The Northern troops, on one of their visits, must have come up the old Cowan Road, which used to branch off the Natural Bridge Road, as they camped at the Hayes Farm, later known as “The Sisters'”, until ut burned in 1912. Proof of this is the fact that it has always been the only place on the mountain where daisies grow wild and it is known the where ever there were Northern camps daisy field were left; since the war we had not daisy fields, and they say, Sherman’s march can be traced through Georgia, by the daisies. (Lily Baker, et al., eds, Purple Sewanee [Sewanee, TN: 1932, rep. 1961] p. 28)

“The Sisters” is, of course, the school and cloisters of the Sisters of St. Mary, who moved to the homestead formerly owned by the prominent sawmill owner, Jabez Hayes, off of what is now called Sherwood Road (TN State Route 56). There are wide, flower-filled meadows there still that no doubt include daisies, though I can’t recall precisely seeing them. I’ve certainly seen daisies in my own yard, only a few miles from St. Mary’s, which may or may not have a Yankee pedigree.

I’m not sure when C.G. made these remarks–Purple Sewanee is vague, as usual–but it must have been after 1912. In addition, I’m not sure what connection there is to the poem cited below, “The Daisy in the South,” written by either Andrew Downing or Frederick Niles (I’ve seen it attributed on-line to both; frankly it’s not a good enough poem to spend much time trying to track it down), dating maybe to the late 19th century. Still, as folklore, it’s quite touching, this tale of nature’s beautiful persistence in the wake of human misery.

There is a story told in Georgia, ’tis in everybody’s mouth,
That was old Tecumseh Sherman brought the daisy to the South;
Ne’er the little blossomed stranger in that land was known to be
‘Till he marched his blue coat columns from Atlanta to the sea.

Everywhere in field and valley and the murm’ring pines among
Where a gallant Union soldier pressed his foot, a daisy sprung,
And its coming seemed to many like a promise from on high,
Given there in benediction where Old Glory floated by.

Where the troopers fed their horses, where the bummers bivouacked,
Now with each recurring summer all that highway may be tracked
By the glory of the presence — so the stars the sky illume —
Of a million northern daisies in the beauty of their bloom.

Thus the kindly hand of nature hides the scars that war has made;
Vines have twined the grounded musket, blossoms wreathe the broken blade;
Tiny timid birds have nested safely in the cannons’ mouth
Ever since Tecumseh Sherman gave the daisy to the South.

Post-script, Sept. 21, 2013. On this topic of the daisy’s spread, I have heard back from  folks far more knowledgeable on botanical matters than myself. David Haskell writes,

I assume that the poem and stories are referring to oxeye daisy, Leucanthemum vulgare. This is an invasive species, originally from Europe. It comes in after disturbance and does well in pasture and roadsides, so I can easily imagine that it would do quite well in the churned up fields and road edges that soldier encampments would leave. It might also have been tracked into new territory by the hay and other feed that the armies would have brought with them.

A quick text search through William Bartram’s travels (http://docsouth.unc.edu/nc/bartram/bartram.html) yielded no daisies, perhaps further evidence of their absence in the south pre-civil war?? His father, John Bartram, named it on his list of troublesome plants in PA in 1759 (see http://eattheinvaders.org/we-came-over-on-the-mayflower-too/).

On the other hand, the idea of the northerners leaving a nasty weed behind in their footsteps seems just a little too striking and poetically convenient, so I’m suspicious. There were plenty of other opportunities for the plant to spread before that. More data from early writings would be interesting.

Todd Crabtree, the Tennessee state botanist, had this to say:

This species has certainly seduced numerous generations of humans. John Bartram was a keen observer and his comments carry a lot of weight with me. If it was a problem in Philadelphia during the mid 1700’s I’m sure it quickly followed colonists to the west and south. One pretty necklace of daisies cast aside after it faded could start an invasion many miles from where it was gathered. As David said, the hay for animals is the most likely vector as well as what the hay becomes after it passes through the livestock. Livestock will avoid the living plants in a pasture thus aiding its spread.  It was also planted in many gardens. The thousands of seeds produced per plant and the long viability of the seeds make it an elite and swift invader. I am sure that there have been multiple waves of invasion since Europeans arrived in North America.
Sometimes we botanists only mention the noteworthy plants. William Bartram may have seen it in his travels and relegated it to a kind of background noise in the flora. If he saw something continually from Philadelphia and at every populated area along the way I wouldn’t blame him for not mentioning it. Belamcanda chinensis (blackberry lily) is mentioned by Gattinger (1825-1901) as being present around Nashville in the cedar glades and he assumed it was native. The only invasive tendencies of that plant are that people and birds like it. If people like a plant then it can travel just as fast and far as they can.

In commenting on this post, Mary Priestley notes,

I had heard that Charlotte Gailor was quoted as saying that for decades after the Civil War you could see the route that Sherman’s army took through the South by following the daisies. She said they had grown from seeds that had hitched a ride in the hay or with grain that they transported for their horses. But I hadn’t seen that explicit reference or the poem!
I love daisies — enjoy picking those fresh-looking blossoms on roadsides in the summertime. They’re native to Europe, brought to North America purposefully as ornamentals and accidentally as contaminants with other seed and plants. Cattle won’t eat them, so a field full of daisies is not a pretty sight to a cattle or dairy farmer. And because the animals avoid them, they multiply. The same is true of Queen Anne’s lace, another pretty import. Daisies don’t have much of a way to distribute their seeds on their own — no way to fly or catch in animals’ fur or anything. So people, including the Union Army apparently, really have been the main instrument of their dispersal to and throughout North America.

So, can the spread of the oxeye daisy in the South be securely linked to Union troop movements in the Civil War? It’s hard to say yes or no. Do you love the story, or love it not?

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About Uncomely and Broken

I teach Latin and Greek at The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.
This entry was posted in Military, Poetry, Sewanee, The South, Trees & Flowers, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Daisy Hereabouts

  1. Margaret Day says:

    I love this! I’d never heard of the connection between Yankee troops and daisies either. I feel a story brewing…

  2. marypriestley says:

    I had heard that Charlotte Gailor was quoted as saying that for decades after the Civil War you could see the route that Sherman’s army took through the South by following the daisies. She said they had grown from seeds that had hitched a ride in the hay or with grain that they transported for their horses. But I hadn’t seen that explicit reference or the poem!
    I love daisies — enjoy picking those fresh-looking blossoms on roadsides in the summertime. They’re native to Europe, brought to North America purposefully as ornamentals and accidentally as contaminants with other seed and plants. Cattle won’t eat them, so a field full of daisies is not a pretty sight to a cattle or dairy farmer. And because the animals avoid them, they multiply. The same is true of Queen Anne’s lace, another pretty import. Daisies don’t have much of a way to distribute their seeds on their own — no way to fly or catch in animals’ fur or anything. So people, including the Union Army apparently, really have been the main instrument of their dispersal to and throughout North America.

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