Daisy and Myrtle: What’s Behind the Plant Names in “The Great Gatsby”?

Shasta daisy

Originally a European wildflower, Shasta daisy is now an American favorite. (Photo courtesy of American Meadows)

While the new release of The Great Gatsby movie has some fans pining for flapper dresses and champagne parties, it’s got me thinking about—what else?—plants.  Yes, plants. In case you hadn’t noticed, the two main female characters in the book The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald are named for plants.

But what’s in a name? I did a little research to find out. First, I dialed up Mike Lizotte, Jr., a managing partner at American Meadows who goes by the title “The Seed Man,” and asked him to tell me about daisies.

The Daisy You Know and Love

 

“This plant category is very popular,” Mike said, “very, very popular.”

Close your eyes and think of daisies. I bet you see a bright yellow center, crisp white petals, and a tall green stem. I also bet you’re smiling. Daisies just make us happy. My mother’s favorite flower is the daisy. It’s the flower my dad gets her on her birthday, on Mother’s Day and in any event that, for whatever reason, requires an apology or just a pick-me-up.

While some plants that are called daisies are actually chrysanthemums, there’s a set of true daisies that all started from the wild original, called OxEye. OxEye is undoubtedly the vision of daisy in your mind, but did you know that in some states, OxEye is actually illegal to plant?! Yep, the wild daisy is considered a noxious weed in some states.

That’s why many new daisy plants have been hybridized, Mike said, both to create new colors and physical characteristics but also to offer less invasive options. Because everyone wants to plant daisies.

“Whether you’re a gardener or a black thumb, daisies attract people,” Mike said. “They attract attention. People know what it is.”

Why daisies? According to Mike, they’re hardy and dependable and they have a lasting bloom, even in drought. But they also just have an ephemeral quality that draws people in.

So What About Myrtle?

 

While there are lots of plants called myrtle—Crape myrtle, wax myrtle, sand myrtle—plants in the true Myrtle family are rarely planted by homeowners. Primarily native to Southern Europe and the Mediterranean regions, myrtle is a tough, scrappy shrub that actually played a fascinating role in many ancient mythologies. While it was popular in England in the 16th to 18th centuries, it fell out of favor due to an influx of new, hardier options being introduced from the Americas. (As a Mediterranean native, myrtle didn’t love England’s harsh winters.)

Again, the plants above are not true myrtles, but some of these more commonly used plants named myrtle have similar characteristics to the original. You can find detailed info about many of them, including those most suited to your landscape, using the Plant Finder at HGTVGardens.com.

And The Great Gatsby?

 

OK, so enough plant-geek speak, how does this relate to The Great Gatsby? I called Dr. Caresse John, an American literature scholar and professor from Belmont University, to find out.

“Daisy is perceived as innocent and feminine,” Caresse said. “She’s beautiful on the surface, but underneath, she has a lot of issues.”

Myrtle, on the other hand, “is portrayed as hearty, solid.” I described to Caresse what I’d learned about myrtle, the plant. “That’s pretty much Myrtle,” she said.

“Daisy seems fragile, like she needs to be cared for. It’s not actually true, but that is what’s on the surface. Myrtle doesn’t need to be protected. She’s a huge presence, but she’s not beautiful like Daisy. She withstands a lot, both physically and with where she lives. She tries to rise above these harsh conditions.”

And what about the darker side of daisies—the whole potentially noxious weed thing? “Daisy does kind of take over. No one knows it, but she does. She’s so central to all the action in the novel. There is a notion of popularity. Daisy is very popular.”

Now, Let’s Review

 

Daisies are popular and beautiful but have some darker traits under the surface, like being potentially invasive. They also last. Same with the character Daisy.

Myrtle is tough and scrappy. It survives in harsh native conditions but can struggle in new climates. Same with the character Myrtle, who, in the book, lives in a place called “The Valley of Ashes,” technically a dump (now known as Flushing Meadows), and, after trying to make her way in a different world, (spoiler alert for those who haven’t read the book or seen the movie!) doesn’t make it in the end.

“Ironically, Fitzgerald thought the novel had failed commercially,” Caresse explained, “and he thought part of that was because the book contained no important woman characters.”

We know, now, that this isn’t true at all. Still, Caresse said, “Neither [Daisy or Myrtle] are people we aim to be. We don’t like either of them.”

And Back to Plants

 

What does all this mean for gardeners? The true myrtle is going to be hard to find, but many options bearing the name are tried-and-true selections for home landscapes. And while I imagine that Myrtle, Gatsby, and nearly every other character in The Great Gatsby might beg to differ, as Mike told me, “You can never fail going with daisy.”

3 Responses

  1. Alice says:

    Myrtle was also associated with Venus in Ancient Rome, for example in Pliny's Natural History book XV.120

  2. wowpam says:

    Lovely!

  3. arthurb3 says:

    Nice

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About Kelly Smith Trimble 

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I grow vegetables wherever I can find enough sunlight and forage roadsides and hiking trails for plants that can be used to make natural dyes. You can find both vintage ...

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