I remember my grandmothers Bachelors Buttons. She had a huge patch of them that came back every year but sometimes she would order seed of a new color to add to the mix. I remember her getting excited when a maroon color Bachelors Button came on the market and she took me to the garden to point them out when they began blooming. My grandmother frequently made bouquets from her garden to give people and cornflowers (Bachelors Buttons) were often in them. I was also allowed to pick the cornflowers whenever I wanted a bouquet.
The Bachelors button or cornflower (Centaurea cyanus), is an old fashioned cottage garden flower every gardener should grow even if you don’t make bouquets. The lovely blue shades of the flowers that are common and the silvery foliage blend well with other cottage garden type flowers like zinnias, marigolds, nasturtiums, cosmos, and calendula.
Bachelors Buttons are native to Europe. There they grow as weeds in corn (where all grain is called corn) fields which give them their other common name, cornflower. They have naturalized in many parts of the world. But the cornflower has also been popular with gardeners for hundreds of years.
Bachelor’s Buttons are hardy in zones 2- 11, so almost every gardener can grow them. They are an annual flower, but they reseed freely and once you have them you may not need to replant them every year. I don’t find them invasive though, they rarely come up far from where they were first planted.
Bachelors Buttons have narrow leaves of silver green and plants grow about 3 feet high, although some dwarf varieties exist. Plants grow quickly and will bloom in about 10 weeks from seed. Each plant is narrow and Bachelors Buttons look best when planted in dense groups rather than in rows.
Bloom time for Bachelor’s Buttons is from early summer to frost although really dry hot weather may halt blooming. The flowers are about 1 ½ inch across and consist of tubular 5 petaled florets arranged in a circle. There are a few narrow petals in the center, by the stamens. Common colors are all shades of blue, a good true blue rarely found in garden flowers, and they also come in pink, white, and maroon shades.
Bachelors Buttons have tiny seeds but the seeds are loved by birds, such as goldfinches. The flowers are visited by both bees and butterflies. They are a great plant to add to pollinator and wildlife gardens. Cornflowers are said to be deer resistant, although one must assume any plant will be eaten by deer if they take a notion to do so.
How to grow Bachelor’s Buttons
You’ll probably have to start your Bachelors Buttons from seed. I find most nurseries don’t carry the plants. Many seed packets of cornflowers will be mixed colors, although you can order pure color varieties. The seed germinates easily. You can start seeds inside about 6 weeks before your last expected frost or simply plant the seeds where you want them to grow. Bachelors Buttons can be fall sown, you plant the seeds in fall where you want them to grow and they will germinate in the spring.
Bachelors Buttons should be planted in full sun. They are very tolerant of many types of soil. They are fairly drought resistant but blooming will suffer if it gets too dry. A light fertilization when planted may promote more blooms but generally isn’t necessary. Plants grown in rich soil tend to be more floppy. If cornflowers are thickly planted in patches they seem to hold each other up better than those planted thinly or in rows. I plant my seedlings I start inside 2 inches apart in the garden.
Like many annuals cornflowers will bloom longer if they are deadheaded, (keeping dead flowers cut off). I do this quickly from time to time with scissors. You don’t have to do this, and make sure to stop deadheading later in the season so some plants will set seed, unless you don’t want them to reseed. You may want to save some seed to start inside next year. Keep it in a dry, but cold place, like a refrigerator produce drawer or unheated garage until you are ready to sow it.
Uses of Bachelors Buttons
Bachelors Buttons are excellent cut flowers and are grown for the florist trade. They are often used in men’s boutonnière; a flower stuck in a buttonhole, hence the name Bachelors Button.
The flowers of Bachelors Buttons are edible and can be used in salads for color. Since the flowers are held together by a cluster of tough sepals I would pull the petals off and sprinkle them in salads. But whole flowers could be used for decoration on cakes. Blue cornflowers were often crushed and used to color sugar a pretty pale blue for sprinkling on confectionaries.
The dried petals of cornflowers are often used in teas, Twinings Lady Grey tea owes some of its flavor to cornflowers. The teas are said to help digestion. An infusion of flower petals was often used as a soothing eye wash. Flower extracts were also used in hair products. ( Hey is that where old ladies originally got blue hair?) A dye or ink can be made from flower petals when mixed with alum, although dyes are said to be not very permanent.
Infusions of Bachelor Buttons plant parts are said to be antipruritic, antitussive, astringent, weakly diuretic, emmenagogue, and very mildly purgative. They are used as a mouthwash for bleeding gums and mouth infections. The seeds of Bachelors Buttons can be used as a mild laxative.
Whether you want it for bouquets, tea or its attractiveness to wildlife Bachelor’s Buttons makes a good addition to the garden. Even if your garden has a more formal look you may be able to find a spot to tuck in some cornflowers.