Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Much of muchness? I don't think so...variations on a theme is more like it. Erigeron compositus...the cutleaf daisy.

Erigeron compositus 'Como'
The plant in question is on the lefthand side--the lavender daisy: I have grown it for forty years.. and if you scroll quickly down this blog you will see a bevy of similar plants. It would be easy to confuse them one with the next--but each is in fact a distinct genotype, a distinct phenotype and for a connoisseur as distinct from one another as a concerto by Telemann from one by Bach, or a fine Cabernet from Ripple. There are those for whom a sixth century mosaic of the Transfiguration on the apse of Saint Catherine in the Sinai would seem similar to the same image on the Church of the Holy Apostles in Thessalonica created almost a millenium later...these phenomena are all utterly distinct to my eyes (although I grant you I can't distinguish a Ford from a Saab, or one sports team from another)...we all have our priorities! And mine happen to be Erigeron...

I collected 'Como' on a glacial moraine on South Park where it was the only lavender cutleaf daisy among thousands of pure white ones: Paul Maslin and I had camped overnight on that Moraine on or about 1974. Since Erigeron are largely apomictic (reproducing asexually) I have maintained this clone for decades--growing it in vast numbers at Denver Botanic Gardens, distributing it through seed exchanges, and just generally cherishing it. I still have it here or there--but it is after all just a cutleaf daisy: it is rather like the 'Classic' clone I discuss below--only pale lavender blue rather than white and utterly charming to a daisy fancier like me. It blooms non stop spring to fall--here growing in the Pikes Peak trough at DBG's former Wildflower Treasures garden.
Erigeron compositus (tiny deep pinky lavender form)
Here's yet ANOTHER variation on the theme--a tiny pinky lavender form that is widely grown by rock gardeners. I believe this one came from Idaho and traces to Betty Lowry. It is outstanding (here growing in a trough in my home garden).
Erigeron compositus (ridiculously cute miniature)
This may be the tiniest and fuzziest and cutest one I have yet to see in this group: I took this picture last year at Denver Botanic Gardens where Mike Kintgen has obtained an especially choice miniature with vivid lavender purple flowers and bright orange disks--a super form desperate for a cultivar name! I must ask him where he got this!
Yet another Erigeron compositus ex the Bigthorns this time...
This one is half the size of 'Como' but twice the size of 'Idaho'--and a great rock garden plant--growing in my rock garden at home. There are no end to cutleaf daisies! Read on...
Erigeron compositus v. discoideus
Here and there throughout the West you will find areas where the cutleaf daisy does not have ray flowers: this "disk' form is homely I agree. But a genuine, bona fide, plant geek (or is it nerd?) like myself must have them ALL! All mine mine mine...heee heeee. (this is a disease isn't it?)....
Erigeron compositus 'Red Desert'
This cultivar is near and dear to my heart. Some time in the early 1990's I was hosted for a few days at a ranch in the Red Desert of south central Wyoming where a friend of mine was working for the summer. The nearest town was Baggs a half hour away or so--and beyond that it was several more hours to such metropolitan centers as Wamsutter, Evanston and the like--in other words, this area is as near to nowhere as you can get in the Continental United States. The Red Desert is one of the most magnificent, enormous and fascinating areas--pock marked (alas) with more and more Oil and Gas pipelines, enormous coal strip mines and other mineral development....there is nevertheless plenty of nature still there. On one rock outcrop on my friend's ranch I found what seemed to be an especially dense mound of Erigeron compositus. I pinched a bit of seed. That winter, Bill Adams of Sunscapes Nursery was visiting, and I gave him the envelope with that pinch of seed. A year or so later I was visiting Bill and saw several flats of a very dense, miniature cutleaf daisy: I just had to have some! "Go ahead and help yourself--that's from the seed you collected in the Red Desert"--and the name has stuck!
Erigeron compositus 'Red Desert'
This closeup really shows just how dense and bunlike the cushion is. What it doesn't show is that this plant can bloom prolifically for six or seven months in a year! A superficially very similar plant was collected on Mt. Adams by Rick Lupp of Mt. Tahoma Nursery--only that form is presumably more alpine in its origin. This one coming from a steppe environment has proven quite drought tolerant.
Erigeron compositus 'Classic'
At first blush this may strike you as similar to 'Red Desert' but in fact this plant is almost three time the size. This form which I call 'Classic' is pretty much what you will encounter most anywhere in Colorado from 6000-10,000 feet (and higher too!). It is a super garden plant in its own right--these cushions are photographed at Denver Botanic Gardens' Rock Alpine Garden where there are quite a few specimens on the original Crevice Garden behind the Alpine House and elsewhere.
Erigeron compositus 'Classic'
A closeup reveals just how hairy this form is, and how dense the leaf can be. Unlike 'Red Desert' which is almost stemless, this can have a stem two or more inches long.

Erigeron compositus 'Classic'

Can't get enough of this plant--here on the back of the Succulent house.

Erigeron compositus 'Classic'
It's a classic--what can I say--notice how each shot of this shows it in a slightly different light?
Erigeron compositus 'Little Valley'
Almost twice the size and not nearly as hairy, this is also a commonly encountered race throughout the West--and the form most frequently sold in the Denver area: Little Valley wholesale nursery is the largest nursery selling native plants in the Denver area (and a good deal more) supplying many of the contractors and nurseries of the Denver area with woody plants as well as herbaceous. Their selection is vigorous and quite large--plants can get up to 6" tall and 8" or more across. These are growing in some small containers in my garden where they have persisted for years.
Erigeron compositus 'Little Valley'
I suspect the cutleaf daisy that forms big mats at the Garden at Kendrick Lake is this same cultivar...these are two shots of the same colony taken a year apart--pretty impressive!

Erigeron compositus 'Little Valley
Erigeron compositus 'Little Valley'
A closeup of the Little Valley form--showing how robust it is in cultivation. Compare it to the monster below--which is easily twice the size!
Erigeron compositus 'Giant'
I obtained this form as "Erigeron trifidus"  which is essentially a giant Erigeron compositus from the Pacific Northwest. For many years this formed large mounds and mats in the Wildflower Treasures garden at Denver Botanic Gardens. The mat below was probably two feet across. This is the "Landscape" form of  the species--the large form you may want to use as a groundcover, or in the forefront of a xeric perennial border. I collected and shared seed of this form for years--although I'm nervous now that this garden has been replaced by a Potager that we may have lost this race from the Botanic Gardens? I sincerely hope not!
Erigeron compositus 'Giant'
One of the many vast mats of this that we once grew at the Gardens... 
Erigeron compositus 'Giant'

The "Giant" form would behave quite nicely when it sowed into a trough in this garden--looking almost petite. But put the same plant in open loam and stand back!

I suspect when you first looked through this blog you saw a blur of whitish little daisies--and I admit that my camera may not do them justice...but these little waifs have been fellow travelers in my gardens and in my life for decades. I think few American wildflowers are as versatile, bloom as long or are nearly as cute as these amazing and ubiquitous cutleaf daisies of the West--and I am sure many more forms are lurking out there in the wild for us to tap for our gardens!



  1. Very informative, thanks so much. Love hearing the "back story" of your plant collecting.

  2. Hello Panayoti, I do not have Erigeron compositus. However, I do have E. pinnatisectus. They look superficially similar to me. I had to look on the Flora of North America site and at my plants to make sure the leaves were feather like and not trifid.

  3. Erigeron pinnatisectus is strictly alpine and generally a bit trickier--most compositus are very easy and long lived and tend to self sow. Better get you some!

  4. My goodness PK, this presentation resonates for me. Too often gardeners grow a native plant and think end of the story, you have clearly illustrated there is so much more to discover. The only named selection I've heard of is 'Red Desert', and what a choice form it is, the pulvinate mats do a fair imitation of Townsendia, wow!

    I've not heard of 'Como', 'Idaho', and 'Little Valley', all look pleasant and distinctive. Is there a plan to name the "ridiculously cute miniature" one, and introduce it (could be named E. compositus 'Ridiculously Cute Miniature'). With good pink flowers and those red phyllaries prominently surpassing emerging ligules and disc; a picture of cut-leaf daisy perfection. Seeing 'Giant' (or is this one merely nicknamed "Giant") demonstrates the opposite end of the spectrum size-wise, but nonetheless worthy.

    My second place favorite is 'Classic' (I'm assuming this too is a nickname), but certainly qualifying for formal naming and distribution. It appears exactly as named, an intermediate-sized classic of balanced proportion and disposition, an overall winner. You may be surprised by my first place pick, it is E. compositus v. discoideus. The short-stemmed discs are plump, bright and showy, mimicking a choice Tanacetum of Ajania, what's not to like.

    Thanks for this most illuminating account.


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