Cornflower (Centaurea cyanus)
Common Cornflower, Basketflower, Bachelor’s Button, Boutonniere Flower, Hurtsickle, Cyani Flower, Bluebottle, Garden Knapweed, Ragged Sailor, Witches’ Bells, Happy Skies, Haw Dods, Cornbottle, Blue Tops, Break-Your-Spectacles, Blue Sailor
About This Plant
Cornflower, with its vivid blue blooms, is a self-seeding, cool-weather annual from the Asteraceae family. It is native to Europe but has now naturalized in North America and Canada. It’s a hardy, frost-tolerant plant that can be sown very early in the Spring from USDA Zones 2 through 11. It reaches from one to three feet in height and spreads about one to two feet wide. It’s star-like blossoms are a brilliant blue that attracts birds and butterflies. Birds love to eat the seeds. It is commonly found in “Wildflower” seed mixes
Cornflower got its name because it was a common weed in cornfields. It germinates together with the cereal crops as was particularly prevalent in rye fields in Europe. Its tough, wiry stems earned it the name Hurtsickle and earned it the reputation of being a nuisance in the Middle Ages. In more recent history, the increasing use of herbicide has led it to become rare in many parts of Europe, while it has naturalized in many other areas, even to the point of being labeled “invasive” in Tennessee and Maryland.
The cheerful blue flowers of Cornflower are single flowers about 1 ¼” wide at the tips of the long branching stems. Each flower head has 25-35 florets consisting of a series of large ray flowers around the outer edge and shorter disk flowers in the center. The bracts surrounding the base of the flower are light green in color, finely toothed, and arranged in several layers, forming an egg-shape and sparsely covered in matted white hairs. The flowers are charming and profuse from late Spring and into Summer. Deadheading prolongs their season. The flowers are edible.
The leaves of the plant are lance-shaped and grey-green in color. The stems and leaves are moderately covered in long, matted hairs. The stems are usually single from the base and branched. The tough and wiry stems start off erect but tend to flop over with time. If planted closely with surrounding vegetation, the stems receive the support they need to stay upright.
Cornflower was known by the name of Cyanus, meaning blue, from the time of Mediterranean antiquity up to the 18th century. The scientific name of the genus, Centaurea, comes from the story of the centaur Chiron who was Achilles’ advisor. According to Greek myth, Chiron applied Cornflower to a poisoned arrow wound Achilles’ received and healed it.
Images of Cornflower can often be seen in Christian frescos and it was also depicted in paintings from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Cornflower was used as a symbol of tenderness, fidelity and, or reliability. It became a symbol of Mary and Christ. Botticelli, in the 15th century decorated the garments of some of the figures in his paintings with a Cornflower design, such as in the “Birth of Venus”.
The edible petals of Cornflower retain their vivid color upon drying and are often used to enhance the color of tea blends. They are an ingredient in the famous Lady Grey blends from Twining tea company. One of the common names of the plant is Bachelor’s Buttons, referring to the long-lasting quality of the flower when it was cut and placed in the buttonhole of a shirt or suit. Cut flowers can last four to five days.
The juice of the petal makes a lovely blue ink and was used to dye linen a beautiful blue. The color is not permanent and is mixed with alum-water when used in water-colur paintings.
The symbol of Cornflower was often associated with the idea of reanimation due to their annual revival with the growing of the crops. Egyptian reproductions of Cornflowers have been found dating back to the 4th century BCE from the Stone and Bronze Age. Wreaths and garlands of Cornflowers, together with petals of Blue Lotus flower, were found on the three coffins found in the tomb of Tut-ankh-Amun. The plants were given to the deceased to accompany them on their journey and to aid in reanimation.
The most well-known story about Cornflowers dates back to when Napoleon invaded Prussia and Queen Louise was forced to hide with her children in a field of Cornflowers. As she and her children laid in the field to hide, she wove crowns out of the flowers and told her children to wear them on their heads to blend in with the gardens.
Perhaps we’re most familiar with the Cornflower imagery from its use as the symbol of the Corning Glass Works.
Cornflower is very easy to start from seed, both indoors and outside. If sowing indoors, plant seeds one month before planting outside. If planting outdoors, in colder zones, sow seeds in the early Spring as soon as the ground can be worked. In zones with mild Winters, seeds can be sown in late September and they will start to grow before the first Fall frost and will bloom earlier the following Spring. Seeds should germinate in seven to ten days.
Cornflower plants should be spaced about seven inches apart. Seedlings do best when transplanted out before they are more than four inches tall.
Cornflower grows well in full sun or partial shade in average garden soil. The plants perform best when they are slightly crowded. Once established, Cornflower can be watered infrequently as the plants are drought tolerant. Their stems will get floppy if the soil is too moist. Plants will self-seed, but not reliably and not for more than a year or two.
The only pest that may bother the plants is aphids and those can be easily deterred with a strong spray of water from a garden hose. In wet weather, rust and powdery mildew may be a problem. Rabbits do like to nibble the plants, especially in early Spring when other food is scarce.
The foliage of Cornflower may become ragged as the season progresses, especially if it’s been particularly rainy or hot. Planting them intermixed with other plants, such as Red Poppies and Snapdragons, will help cover their foliage and camouflage them. Deadheading the plants prolongs the flower season.
The rice-sized seeds of Cornflowers are loved by Goldfinches and other small seed-eating birds. To harvest seed, simply harvest flowerheads as they become spent (allowing them to dry as much as possible on the plants but harvesting them before the birds get them). Place the flowerheads on paper towels in a well-ventilated place to complete the drying process. Simply crush the flowerheads lightly by hand and separate seeds. The fruits have long pappus bristles.
- Plants look great as part of an informal or wildflower garden
- Cut flowers
- Attracts Birds and Butterflies
- Flowers are edible
The brilliant blue flowers of the Cornflower plant are edible and can be eaten raw, dried, or cooked. Raw petals are sometimes added to cheeses and oils. Dried petals are added to tea blends. Fresh petals can also be added to salads, drinks, or desserts for a dazzling splash of color.
All parts of the Cornflower plant have been used traditionally as medicines for relieving fever and cleansing the blood as well as an astringent, a diuretic, and a purgative. Plants have anti inflammatory, antioxidant and antimicrobial properties.
Cornflower can be taken as an herbal infusion to help sooth stomach ulcers and speed healing of mouth sores as well as bleeding gums. Strong infusions are used to treat urinary tract infections, detoxify the liver and prevent ailments such as cold and flu.
Cornflower is used in wound healing. It has naturally occurring tannis which help bind proteins, making it useful in treating wounds. Its antiseptic properties assist in preventing wound infections. It’s coagulant abilities assist in stanching the bleeding of open wounds.
Cornflower makes a great tonic that is beneficial for all types of skin. It’s great for managing rashes and other types of inflammation on the skin. A concentrated infusion can be used to wash the scalp and rid it of dandruff. Cornflower refreshes and tonifies skin.
Cornflower has a long history being used to manage eye afflictions. According to 17th century records, extracts from the flowers were used to cure people of the need to wear spectacles. Floral extracts are also used to alleviate puffy, tired eyes and conjunctivitis. Simply wet cotton pads with an infusion, or tea, made with the flowers and place them over your closed eyes for a few minutes.
Cornflower is native to Europe.