“The Daisy with the Kick of a Mule”
By “Awake!” correspondent in Kenya
IT LOOKS like a pretty little daisy. Yet it is deadly. No, not to man or his pets and domestic animals, but deadly to pests. Whether lodged in an opening in a home or hiding in a food store, almost all pests are conquered by this diminutive member of the chrysanthemum family. Even the toughest mosquito and the “super cockroach” find themselves no match for this “daisy with the kick of a mule.” With its thin white petals and bright-yellow buttonlike center, pyrethrum is attractive enough to be placed in a vase to decorate your table. However, it can do much more for you!
In powder form, the pyrethrum has been used as a very effective insecticide for thousands of years. Its use for that purpose was widespread in ancient China, and later in parts of Europe, Japan and other areas. Despite the advantageous properties that make the pyrethrum the solution to many problems created by synthetic insecticides, it has remained largely unknown to the modern world. Why? Because manual labor and other factors connected with its growth and harvesting created fluctuations in production levels. However, its future as your household friend is brightening.
Research has now produced pyrethrum powder, coils, sprays and even aerosol “bombs.” In increasing numbers, farmers are beginning to realize that pyrethrum can be a valuable cash crop. And in the wake of an upset “balance of nature” in numerous places due to the use of synthetic insecticides, many now are turning to pyrethrum. That special little daisy serves well as an insecticide that solves modern-day problems. Yes, it may be worth your effort to get better acquainted with this surprising flower.
Although “the daisy with the kick of a mule” is grown in Ecuador, Japan, Tanzania, Rwanda and elsewhere—sometimes in pink or violet varieties—Kenya is, by far, the world’s leading producer of pyrethrum. Most of the crop comes from the Kisii highlands, situated in the southwest of the country. There, between tea, maize, beans and other crops, whole fields of these smiling flowers greet your eyes. The best yields are obtained at elevations between 6,000 and 8,000 feet (1,800 to 2,400 meters). High altitudes assure the low night temperatures needed for maximum initiation of flower buds. Kenya’s geographical location astride the equator ensures plenty of sunshine to encourage the buds to develop quickly into mature flowers, while also being a help in the drying of the picked flower heads. There is an adequate supply of refreshing rain in the highlands, too, with 40 to 45 inches (102 to 114 centimeters) a year being considered ideal.
Today, over 90 percent of Kenya’s pyrethrum crop comes from more than 100,000 small-scale farmers who have grouped themselves into over 200 cooperative societies. Hence, pyrethrum is Kenya’s third-largest agricultural export product after coffee and tea. The Pyrethrum Board of Kenya, whose processing factory and headquarters are centrally located in Nakuru (within view of the famous bird sanctuary), provides much help and technical advice.
After obtaining seedlings from the Pyrethrum Board, the farmers are in for much hard work. They have to give attention to proper soil rotation, nursery beds, careful weeding, cutting back stalks, and many other things. Although pyrethrum growing is laborious work, it improves the standard of living of these farmers. The rich highland soil assures rapid growth, and, about four weeks after planting, it is already harvesttime.
Picking the Flowers
When pyrethrums are being picked, we can see the whole family in the fields. Even a five-year-old girl may be carrying a little sisal basket. She and her brothers and sisters have been taught to pick only mature flower heads, breaking them off with a deft twist of nimble fingers. Adults are able to pick between 60 and 100 pounds (27 and 45 kilograms) of flower heads a day. This is a back-breaking job because the flowers grow to a height of only two feet (60 centimeters). For the children, it is a fine, fun-filled break, though they are in school during most of the year.
The harvesting continues for nine months. Every two weeks or so, fully opened flowers are picked when they have the highest pyrethrin content. All the flower heads are spread on the ground to be dried by the hot sun, and they will lose about three quarters of their weight before being taken to the factory in Nakuru.
The modern factory and processing plant is equipped with the latest machines. A cushion of warm air conveys the dried flowers through pipes from loading bay to crushing machines. In varying degrees of concentration, oil is extracted from the flowers and put into large drums. These are marked with a white daisy emblem and are labeled “Kenya Pyrethrum Extract.” The extract is exported to countries like the United States, the Federal Republic of Germany and Japan, where the oil is converted into the familiar insecticide sprays. On the other hand, the powdery residue called “marc” is exported mainly to the Far East, for the manufacture of mosquito coils. These are designed to burn slowly, emitting a smoke that is death-dealing to insects coming in contact with it. This marc also makes good animal fodder, for it has a 13-percent-protein content, approximately the same as wheat bran.
Due to its safety to man and his domestic animals, as well as to its death-dealing properties to harmful insects, there are many uses of pyrethrum. It has been found that insect pests do not develop a resistance to pyrethrum, as they have done in the case of synthetic insecticides so widely used today. Other advantages of this “natural” insecticide are that it can be added to water supplies and can be used to protect stored foodstuffs without the harmful effects generally associated with synthetic insecticides. Pyrethrum is unstable in strong sunlight, which means that it does not stay active long enough to upset the “balance of nature.” So, in today’s pollution-conscious world, pyrethrum offers an effective weapon in home hygiene, for it knocks out deadly pests without disturbing ecological systems.
The future will reveal whether this smiling daisy with unusual properties will become a household friend of many more people. It has the potential for more extensive use in home insecticide preparations, in food protection and even as an insect repellant applied to the skin. Truly, this harmless-looking little flower is earning its reputation as “the daisy with the kick of a mule.”