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She Loves Me...She Loves Me Not: Growing Cornflower from Seed

When little girls want to divine the intentions of their crushes, they pluck daisy petals. One for "he loves me," and the next for "he loves me not." And on and on and on until the last petal which, if pulled out on the "not," would cause her to shrug, grab the next hapless flower, and try again until she gets the right answer.

Young ladies aren't the only creatures who turn to members of the Asteraceae family to predict their romantic futures. Cornflower is commonly known as "Bachelor's buttons" because gentlemen would wear them on their lapels. It's said that if the flower quickly faded, so would the woman's loyalty or interest. If it stayed "true blue," then she could be the one.

Sometimes, a cornflower pinned to a lapel simply indicates that the gentleman is "on the market." We're not quite sure how this relates to John F. Kennedy's decision to wear one when he wed Jackie, but we have our suspicions.

Finally, another version of cornflower's fortune-telling tradition has the guy shoving the flower in his pocket. If it turns mushy and gross, the woman has a foot out the door. If it stays fresh and fragrant, then the man can go another two weeks without doing his laundry.

At least, we think that's how it goes.

Cornflower's Historical Significance

Native to Europe, the Mediterranean, and North Africa, few plants hold as much honor as Centaurea cyanus. Its genus name is a nod to the centaur Chiron, the Greek mythological creature who brought herbal medicine to mankind...and who also symbolized virility. Myths also tell of Chiron being healed with cornflower tea after he took an arrow in battle.

Cyan, of course, is another word for "blue," a tribute to the goddess Cyanus—who chose the cornflower as her favorite plant.

When archeologists went to explore King Tutankhamen's crypt, the last thing they expected to find amongst gold was a wreath, still intact, made out of these indigo wonders.

— Suzie Canalis, The Symbolic Meaning of Bachelor Buttons

Cornflower first came to the UK and northern Europe in the Iron Age. In those days, "corn" was a generic term for grain, and as the plant quickly naturalized in wheat fields, it earned its common name. Vincent Van Gogh painted a landscape of cornflowers in a field of wheat, and a still-life titled "Vase with Cornflowers and Poppies.”

Over the years, Europeans adopted cornflowers as their own. The flower has served as a sigil for nations, organizations, brotherhoods, and consumer products:

  • CorningWare®'s cornflower-adorned cookware is among America's most recognized household brands.
  • Cornflower is Estonia's national flower.
  • In Northern European countries, cornflower traditionally represents social liberalism.
  • Among the French, cornflowers symbolize the Great War's Armistice Day.

In the UK, conservation organizations such as The Wildlife Trust are keeping an eye on wild cornflowers, which have all but been eradicated by agricultural pesticides. Intentional reseeding and disturbance of soils thought to hold dormant seeds have helped cornflower recover.

In the northeastern US, where it's been cultivated since colonial times, cornflower has naturalized and in some areas, is considered a noxious weed...but not nearly as reviled as its cousins, spotted and Russian knapweed, the twin scourges of the west.

Cornflower in the Garden

Centaurea cyanus has flowers and bracts similar to those found on dandelions, China asters, and chicory. All have compound flower heads with ray florets—cornflower, dandelion, and China asters having multiple layers—but as compared to the rest of the Asteraceae clan, their central "disks" are less obvious.

Butterflies adore cornflower's fluffy blooms, as do honeybees and bumblebees. Cornflowers produce a great deal of nectar, and butterflies can easily sip from the tubelike florets that other insects might not be able to reach.

Centaurea cyanus easily reseeds itself. If you allow it to naturalize, be aware that it can become invasive. Whether you harvest the seeds by hand (shaking seeds from spent flowers) or let them do their own thing, local songbirds will thank you; cornflower seeds are birdie crack and nutritious, energy-rich fillers for your hanging feeders.

USDA Hardiness Zones: Centaurea cyanus are cool-season annuals in zones 2 to 11. They can tolerate light frost.

Sunlight Preferences: Full sun. In the hottest areas, choose a spot in partial afternoon shade. Too much shade, however, will lead to floppy stems.

Moisture Requirements: Keep young plants evenly moist. Established cornflower plants are drought-tolerant, but we recommend occasional deep waterings if you're using them as a xeriscaping plant, and regular irrigation for the best flower production.

Soil Preferences: Cornflower handles average soils, but does best with a little compost mixed in. Aim for a pH range between 6.6 to 7.6.

Plant Height: 16" to 36" tall.

Plant Width: 12" to 24" spread.

Flowers: Compound round flower heads are about 2" across, with fused individual florets radiating outward in multiple ruffly layers. Cornflower blossoms might be varying shades of indigo blue, pink, white, or deep burgundy, though blue is it's natural "wild" color. Bicoloration is common, with different hues or shades in the flower's centermost area.

Foliage: Silvery-green leaves and stems seem to serve only as accents for these stand-out flowers. The basal leaves are lyrate-pinnatifid, somewhat similar to those of the dandelion. Upper leaves are long, thin, and lance-shaped, resembling tough blades of grass.

Bloom Period: Late spring through fall with consistent watering and minimal maintenance.

Growth Habit: Cornflower is a clumping plant, with long, slender stalks supporting its flower heads.

Days to Maturity: 80 to 90 days.

Pests & Diseases: Centaurea cyanus isn't a pest magnet, nor is it particularly prone to disease. Overcrowding and high humidity may encourage powdery mildew, so we recommend watering your plants at ground-level or early in the day.

Maintenance: Deadhead spent blooms and apply an all-purpose fertilizer to prolong and enhance flower production. You might need to stake your cornflowers in windy areas, as they tend to lodge as they reach maturity.

Harvesting: Cut the flower stalks as close to the base as possible, and immediately immerse them in water if you plan to use them for fresh floral arrangements. Cut the stems once again, this time at an angle and under running water before you add them to your display. They can last up to 10 days using this method.

For dried flowers, hang them upside-down in a well-ventilated, arid area. Dried cornflowers retain their vivid hues and, in addition to adding color to arrangements, make great potpourri.

Growing Cornflower from Seed

We recommend direct-sowing your Centaurea cyanus seeds outdoors, as it doesn't take kindly to transplanting.

Seed Treatment: None required.

When to Plant Outdoors: As soon as the soil has thawed and all chances of spring frost have passed. You can sow your seeds in the fall for early spring blooms if you're in a milder climate.

Seed Depth: Cornflower requires sunlight to germinate. Don't cover them up with more than 1/16" of fine topsoil; we recommend scattering cornflower seeds or gently pressing them into the soil.

Seed Spacing: Plant or thin 6" to 12" apart.

Days to Germination: Growing cornflower from seed usually takes 7 to 21 days at 65°F to 70°F. Cornflower seeds usually germinate on the early end of the range.

Indoor Starting Tips: If you do decide to start your cornflower seeds indoors, do so 6 to 8 weeks before you plan to set them out and grow them in a bright window or under fluorescent grow lights. Use deep peat pots to allow for low-shock transplanting, and don't let them dry out!

Cornflower's Culinary and Apothecary Uses

Cornflowers, which taste and smell like cucumber, are edible. You can serve them as a garnish, or dry them to make tea. Candy them, freeze them in ice cubes or add them to chevre.

Flower heads, when soaked in boiling water and placed on the eyelids, reduce puffiness or redness. "The famous French eyewash, Eau de Casselunettes, used to be made from them," writes botanist M. Grieve in A Modern Herbal.

Ms. Grieve shares this quote by English herbalist and botanist Nathan Culpeper (1616-1654):

It is a remedy against the poison of the scorpion and resisteth all venoms and poisons. The seeds or leaves (or the distilled water of the herb) taken in wine is very good against the plague and all infectious diseases, and is very good in pestilential fevers: the juice put into fresh or green wounds doth quickly solder up the lips of them together, and is very effectual to heal all ulcers and sores in the mouth.

"Doth" is such an awesome word. We have to 100% get it backeth into the modern vernacular.

Cornflower's ability to reduce puffiness makes it useful in treating other inflammatory issues, and when teas are used as a rinse, it's thought to reduce eczema and oral ulcers.

Cornflower poultices have treated pain for centuries, and various concoctions made from the flowers, leaves, and seeds have been "prescribed" as an internal treatment for the following:

  • Gastrointestinal disorders
  • Loss of appetite
  • Menstrual cramps
  • Stress, anxiety, depression
  • Kidney, liver, and spleen problems

Cornflower juice or powdered petals mixed with alum were popular but quick-to-fade pigments for ink, paint, and textile dye. "Cornflower blue" is still used today to describe items sharing the flower's light indigo hue.

Source Your Cornflower Seeds from Seed Needs

Some seeds can remain dormant for years, while most lose their viability after a season or two. Either way, the freshest seeds produce the best results. We do our best to make sure our products have the best germination rate so you're not gambling with your gardening season...and so we can keep cultivating our growing base of loyal, faithful customers.

If you're looking for a "true blue," family-operated seed supplier, please contact us to find out how we can earn your business!
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