Paper daisies are such an interesting flower, not just because of their botanical uniqueness and versatility in the floristry industry but because of the crazy backstory about their naming. Well, I should preface this by saying, I find it interesting as I’m a bit of a taxonomy/etymology nerd, it’s the herbalist in me rearing its head – but I’m not sure everyone will!
So, let’s talk about the flower itself before we get into the juicy stuff!
Paper daisies – which you may know as strawflowers or everlasting daisies – are a flower native to Western Australia. Their lovely, crispy, papery petals (which are really bracts – modified leaves) make them extremely long-lasting – once picked, even up to 2 years after, they retain their colour and shape
As a plant, they thrive in full sun. One of their lovely features is that they tend to close up at night and in damp or wet weather and then open up again when exposed to light. They continue to do this even after being picked. It is no surprise to learn that they are part of the sunflower family.
The stunning array of vivid colours that they come in (yellow, orange, pink, & purple) make them not only incredibly attractive to butterflies and bees, but also to florists.
In floristry, their gorgeous colours, and low moisture content and long-lasting nature makes them perfect for both fresh and dried arrangements, for flower crowns, table arrangements and even potpourri, despite a lack of noticeable scent when fresh. (Though it is said that, when dried, their scent repels moths.)
So, now comes their amazing history, complete with getting a coveted spot in the famous garden of Josephine de Beauharnais (Napoleon’s wife) at Chateau Malmaison and a write up in the book Jardin de la Malmaison*.
It is believed that the flower was first discovered and described in 1803, and named Xeranthemum bracteatum, derived from the Greek work xeros ‘dry’ and the latin species name bracteatum, referring to its colourful bracts, and it was under this name that it was incorporated into the Jardin de la Malmaison. Sounds good, right? Everyone happy with that name?
Well, no. Not two years later, along came another botanist who decided it should be transferred to the genus Helichrysum, coming from the Greek Helisso – ‘to turn’ – and chrysos – ‘gold’. So, our paper daisies became Helichrysum bracteatum. Is that the end of the story? No. Not one year later another botanist stuck his beak in and in 1806, our papers lost their bracts and became Helichrysum lucidum. Right, done? Nope. Along comes 1807 and with it another botanist who decided that lucidum was all wrong and they were now to be known as Helichrysum chrysanthemum.
No more changes, surely? Well, it does seem that the name Helichrysum chrysanthemum satisfied the botany world for a while (or they just forgot all about these lovely little flowers) because that name stuck for over 180 years. However, botanists are a busy bunch and in 1991 two ambitious botanists created the genus Bracteantha and the flower became Bracteantha bracteata, but, as before, this had issues. Stay with me, because unbeknownst to our two botanists, in 1990 another botanist had placed the flower into the genus Xerochrysum, giving it the botanical name of Xerochrysum bracteatum. For over 10 years there was confusion as both Bracteantha bracteata and Xerochrysum bracteatum were in use. In 2002, finally, Xerochrysum bracteatum won out! And this is how paper/everlasting daisies have been known ever since – from the Greek for dry (Xeros) and gold (chrysos) and the latin species name bracteatum. What a palaver! Hopefully that’s the end of it!
I find it fascinating that these crunchy, colourful little flowers we see adorning bouquets and dried arrangements, and that we probably take for granted most of the time, have been the subject of so much attention and interest for over two hundred years – and yet they still as perfect as ever and will be for the next two hundred years (fingers crossed).
*It is worth noting that our native paper daisies were not the only Australian plant to find its way into Josephine’s amazing garden – she also grew acacias, boronias, casuarinas, grevilleas, eucalypts and melalueucas.
Author - Elise Catterell