Briefly, a composite is a member of the composite family (Compositae or Asteraceae family). However, such a statement conveys little information to one who is just learning. It becomes clearer to say that a composite is a member of the daisy family or the:
- Sunflower family
- Aster flowers
- Chicory, or
- Ragweed family
But garden magazines, garden books, and nursery catalogs frequently use the word composite. We should become thoroughly familiar with it. The best way to know a word is to use it.
Table of contents
Composite Plant Family – Important and Large
The composite family is very important as well as very large. Some of its members provide us with food, others with dyes, medicines, oils (edible, illuminating and lubricating) and insect powders.
Many composites are ornamentals, and there are the black sheep of the family – the weeds.
The daisies, sunflowers, asters, thistles, and others of this group with all their relatives consist of more genera (over 800) than any other plant family.
We can hardly glance anywhere without seeing composites whether it is:
- Among the plants in the perennial borders
- Down the rows of annuals
- In the herb patch
- Among the house plants and succulents
- In the vegetable or in the wild garden
- In patches of weeds
Botanists tell us that plants of this family have reached the highest state of development.
The plants vary considerably as do their flowers but it is the flowers that carry certain family characteristics for which we should look.
They have packed more into the same amount of space than any other flower.
Their structure is such that a visit from one insect may result in the pollination of many flowers. This insures an abundance of seeds.
The seeds are often equipped with clever devices which assist in their distribution.
The stick-tights or beggar-ticks (Bidens) which hang onto our clothing, burdock (Arctium) with its burr-like heads equipped with hooked bristles that catch on the fur of passing animals.
Dandelions and goats-beard (Tragopogon) with feathery plumes enabling them to float through the air to favorable growing places.
These are examples of some of the ways seeds of composite flowers travel.
The flower head which to a casual observer appeal’s to be one flower as a lily is, or a rose, is, in reality, a cluster of many small flowers.
These flowerlets are either all alike, or the ones in the center of the head are different in construction from those on the outer edge.
When they are all alike, they are either tubular or flattened and ribbon-like.
When there are two kinds, as for instance on a Shasta daisy, the central ones (the disk flowers) are tubular, and the outer ones (the ray flowers) which appear to be the petals are flattened and ribbon-like.
In some composite species, each little flower has the means to produce seed and in other species it calls for cooperation.
One flowerlet may have the stamens and another the pistil, or the disk flower may have both organs of reproduction and the ray flowers the duty of attracting the insects necessary to pollinate the flowers in order to produce seeds.
The clustered flower head is fitted neatly into a receptacle called an involucre.
This is an adaptation of the sepals and varies in design.
It may resemble a cup or tiny basket – the sepal-like parts (usually green) almost fused together or in layers overlapping like scales or leaf-like in appearance.
We discover the strangest facts when we delve into the study of plant families.
Did You Know That Daisies Are Chrysanthemums?
The ox-eye daisy of the field is Chrysanthemum leucanthemum – a Greek name which means “golden flower-white flower.”
A most descriptive name – the gold flowers are the disk flowers in the center. The white flowers are the ray flowers around the edge.
The painted daisy (pyrethrum from which insect powder is made ) is Chrysanthemum coccineum.
Another plant, not a daisy but which you may not recognize as a chrysanthemum is costmary, Chrysanthemum balsamita.
It has also been called the Bible-leaf plant.
We are told, in the olden days, women carried a pressed leaf in their Bibles when they attended church.
Should the sermon be somewhat long, the women sniffed the aromatic leaf from time to time to keep them wide awake and alert.
Even now, when passing the plant which came from grandmother’s garden, some pluck a leaf in order to enjoy its fragrance.
As you look over the garden and note which are composites, we find a great difference in size of blossoms, from the dinner-plate-size dahlias to the tiny insignificant blossoms on the artemisia ‘Silver King.’
Whatever color of flower is wanted, there is probably a composite to be had:
- Yellow marigolds
- Orange calendulas
- Lavender China asters
- Purple liatris
- White cornflowers (Centaurea cyanus)
- Blue globe thistle (Echinops)
- Red cineraria (Senecio cruentus)
- Pink strawflowers (helichrysum)
- … and many others.
Among the house plants, we mentioned the florist’s cineraria, Senecio cruentus.
There are two ivies in the senecio genus:
- Senecio mikanioides, the German ivy
- Senecio macroglossus, the Cape ivy
Perhaps you have seen or grown in your windows some of the Kleinias, succulent composites related to the genus Senecio.
Succulents are plants with fleshy leaves and stems.
Have you seen a plant blooming outside in the springtime, with small yellow daisy-like blossoms?
It is Senecio plattensis known as groundsel or ragwort.
There are some 1200 species of Senecio but it matters not which one it is – if it’s a senecio it’s a composite.
In the wild garden, along roadsides, or in their native homes, we are acquainted with such composites as goldenrod, yarrow, the rudbeckias, purple coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), and white snakeroot (Ageratina altissima).
We may never have realized that such products from our vegetable garden as lettuce, endive, and vegetable-oyster are related to such weedy plants as the tall wild lettuce (Lactuca canadensis), chicory, and wild meadow salsify (Tragopogon pratensis).
In the herb patch we find tarragon which is an artemisia used for seasoning.
Perhaps you have grown tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) in your flower border instead of in the herb garden.
The composite family includes between 10,000 and 12,000 species.
Even a magnifying glass may not disclose the family characteristics of some of the smaller flowered ones.
But perhaps if you examine the sizable blossoms closely and with the help of garden books or Google, you can decide about these three:
Are they composites?