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All About Cornflower

Use a wildflower mixture of cornflower for a dramatic, low-maintence meadow
Use a wildflower mixture of cornflower for a dramatic, low-maintence meadow

By Ellen Ecker Ogden, author and garden design lecturer.

This once wild plant is native to Europe and was given its name due to rampant proliferation in cornfields. The seeds thrive in the same conditions as corn; open, sunny fields with moderately dry soil, yet over time, due to over-use of herbicides in cornfields throughout Europe and the US, Cornflowers no longer reseeded themselves naturally.

In some countries, in fact, Cornflowers are on the endangered list of native plants due to its rapid disappearance in the wild.

Cornflower is a member of the Asteracea or Compositae family, which is a large and widespread group of plants that includes sunflowers, daisies, and asters. The genus is Centaurea, which includes both annual and perennial varieties. The following description focuses on C. cyanus, which is the annual flower, grown easily from seed and popular as a bedding plant or cut flower for home gardeners and florists.

Cornflowers readily grow from seed and will thrive when sown indoors in pots 4 weeks before a frost-free date, then transplanted, or outdoors directly in the garden.

Starter plants are readily available in most garden centers, yet lack the diversity of colors, a good reason to start from seeds.

Cornflowers are often used as a boutonniere in weddings, and because of their popularity, have been bred to produce plants for a wider range of blossom colors, including white, pink, red-purple, deep burgundy (sometimes called black) and the crisp blue which is the only true natural color.

Highly prized for their brilliant blue flowers, the soft, frilly double blossoms with fringed petals and delicate gray-green feather foliage, cornflowers are ideal in a vase along with zinnias, calendula and other brightly colored cutting garden blossoms. Two of the most common varieties of Bachelor Buttons grown by the cut flower industry are “Blue Boy” or “Blue Diadem”, along with “Black Ball” which is a dark burgundy cornflower, especially striking with ornamental grasses.

Learn the best practices for wildflower planting with expert tips from the 'Seed Man'

All About Cornflower: Origins and Uses

Cornflowers are sometimes referred to by their nickname, "bachelor's button" due to an old practice when men wore a cornflower in a buttonhole of their suit, indicating they are in love or they were ready for courting. Cornflowers, or Bachelor Buttons, are also used as boutonnieres in weddings, often worn by the groom and his best man which is a more modern twist on this traditional symbol of love and devotion.

Called ‘Bluet’ in England and ‘Bluebonnet’ in Scotland, in North America Cornflowers are sometimes called Ragged Robin, or Ragged Sailor because of the shaggy petals. They are one of the few true blue flowers that are also edible, imparting a sweet cucumber like taste. In the garden, they are visually stunning planted with brightly colored NasturtiumsMarigold and California Poppies. In a vase, they blend well with SnapdragonsSweet William and Love-in-a-Mist (or Nigella)

The cornflower shape and brilliant blue color is similar to chicories, and has many associations throughout the world; it is the national flower of Estonia, representing the Estonian political party, and a symbol for social liberalism with the Swedish National Party. The blue cornflower also plays a role in German history, thanks to Queen Luis of Prussia who purportedly hid her children in a field of cornflowers when she fled Berlin.

The story is told that she kept them quiet by weaving wreaths made from the flowers. To honor her courage and resourcefulness, the Cornflower blue was adopted for the uniforms of the Prussian army. In France, the cornflower is a common symbol for veterans of World War to wear, as a reminder of the 1918 Armistice, similar to the remembrance of poppies worn in the UK and Canada.

All About Cornflower: In the Garden

Cornflowers are best grown in drifts or clumps since their stems are slender and flowers not much bigger than a quarter. Flowering starts early since they are relatively cold hardy and can be one of the first transplants in the garden. Expect first blooms in early to mid-summer and if spent blossoms are kept trimmed, will continue all summer. Butterflies and bees adore them, which is a good reason to be sure that Cornflowers are in every home garden or wildflower meadow.

Easy to grow from seed, Cornflowers are highly successful when planted several times during the growing season. Start by sowing seeds indoors, then transplant seedlings after danger of frost is past. Sow a row or two directly in the garden in late spring, pressing in the seed about ½ inch, then rake over with fresh soil, press, and water lightly. Another planting can be done in mid-summer for a showy fall display. A variety of different colors of bachelor buttons create an effective visual.

Cornflowers prefer to grow in an open, sunny location and can tolerate poor soil, yet prefer rich loamy garden soil that has been enriched with phosphorus, which gives an extra boost to fruit and flowering plants. Dig a little fertilizer into the soil at the start of the growing season, and again mid-summer.

When harvesting the blossoms, cut them just before the buds open for longer lasting display. With sharp scissors, harvest a full stem, which will encourage new growth to sprout from the base of the plant.

Cornflowers are relatively carefree, yet can be susceptible to stem rot and rust, if grown too tightly in a bed with not enough air in-between to circulate. Garden pests that can affect Cornflowers include aphids and leafhoppers, which will weaken the stems, causing the plant to expire.

girl holding cornflower bouquet
It's hard to resist using cornflowers as cut flowers since they're so beautiful, and long-lasting.

About the Author: Ellen Ecker Ogden is the author of six books, including The Complete Kitchen Garden, featuring theme gardens and recipes for cooks who love to garden. She writes and lectures on kitchen garden design.

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