Easter Daisies in the Garden - by Panayoti Callas

Aquilegia Volume 1 No. 2 March-April 1977

When I was a young and plant-loving punster I had almost convinced myself that Townsendias were called that because my favorite patch of Easter Daisies grew at the town’s end. In reading-up for this article I was saddened to discover that this rather euphonious name is actually derived (as is the case with so many unique and endemic western genera) from the name of an obscure, nineteenth century amateur botanist, George Townsend. If the Easter Daisy is obscure, it is only because of the cultural immaturity of the West. What greater proof of this than that such a striking, abundant and unusual plant should remain so little known. Would anyone really doubt that Coloradoans would recognize the East­ern or Eurasiam crocus than our own endemic harbinger? There are over twenty recogn1zed in the genus altogether, and all are confined to the western half of America.

a photo of one small hooker's easter daisy

Hooker’s Easter Daisy (Townsendia hookeri)
Photo by Mo Ewing

One or another of a half dozen species can be found over much of Colorado–right up to the boundaries of the latest subdivisions and condo­ miniums ringing Denver. I’ve seen them growing abundantly at nine thousand feet on the Western, several species carpet the mesas and of the Eastern slope, and one rare and endangered species (Townsendia rothrockii A. Gray) is recorded from a few peaks in between.

a photo of two pink rothrock's easter daisies

Rothrock’s Easter Daisy (Townsendia rothrockii)
Photo by SW Colorado Wildflowers

March is the month for the Easter Daisy, Townsendia hookeri Beaman. This and the closely allied Townsendia excapa (Rich.) Porter can even occasionally be found blooming in late January or February over much of the eastern slope of the Rockies. Like most of the early blooming Townsendias, our local plant grows in dense tufts from a crown of numerous very narrow, blue-green leaves that are evergreen. These tufts emerge from a short root­ stalk that sends down a dense mass of elastic roots. The white, or pink-tinged flowers are formed the previous year, and appear stemless when they finally open. They will cover the whole bun for the better part of two months.

Both of these early blooming daisies form wide colonies on exposed, gravelly and well-drained sites where there is little competition from grasses and other plants. At blooming time, at the right spot, it’s hard to walk without stepping on them. Like the buffalo their numbers seem infinite, but they may fare better, since as long as the prairie soils remains unplowed, Townsendias seem to persist. The plants are so low that cattle seem to have a hard time browsing them, so a somewhat over-grazed meadow is a fine place to view Easter Daisies.

a photo of a clump of stemless easter daisies

Stemless Easter Daisy (Townsendia exscapa)
Photo by SW Colorado Wildflowers

With the rampant development taking place over much of their range, it is not too difficult for a conservation-minded gardener to find doomed colonies. I have grown them for several years, and can offer this advice. Collected plants establish easily, but they are emphatically not border plants. They look and grow best in a gravelly rock garden that is not over­ watered once the plants establish. I’ve never consciously tried growing them from seed, since a few plants will produce enough seed in June to cover acres. The seed germinates promptly when fresh and within a month the ground around the mother plants is peppered with minute of their parents. The seedlings will not stand competition, and if they are over-watered in the summer they invariably rot away. It takes at least two years from seed to flower when they are grown in this fashion.

Easter Daisies will never become widely grown as long as Colorado gardeners insist on an inch and a half of artificial precipitation on their gardens every week to keep their blue­ grass brown. But in the increasing number of dryland. native gardens, Easter Daisies are once again coming back into town.