How to Grow and Care for Cornflower

multicolored bachelor's buttons

The Spruce / Letícia Almeida 

Flower gardeners can’t go wrong with the old-fashioned annual cornflower (Centaurea cyranus). This plant's double 1 1/2-inch blooms resemble miniature carnations and are easy to grow. Originally a native European and Asian pasture flower, cornflower was largely eradicated in its natural habitat by the use of modern herbicides due to the fact that it can reseed rampantly if not kept in check. Nevertheless, everyday gardeners should be awarded at least one "can’t-fail plant" in their garden, making this lightly fragrant addition perfect for a beginner’s landscape.

Cornflower's delicate papery discs are surrounded by bracts that flower atop slim stems of narrow gray-green leaves. Mature plants will reach a height of up to 48 inches, and a spread of 12 inches wide in all growing zones. Dense bright blue blooms last from spring through midsummer. This species also boasts several cultivars offering pink, white, and crimson flowers, as well.

Common Name Cornflower, bachelor's button
Botanical Name Centaurea cyanus
Family Asteraceae
Plant Type Annual
Mature Size 12–48 in. tall, 10–12 in. wide
Sun Exposure Full, partial
Soil Type Moist, well-drained
Soil pH Alkaline
Bloom Time Spring, summer
Flower Color Blue, purple, pink, white, red
Hardiness Zones 2–11 (USDA)
Native Area Europe

Cornflower Care

Cornflower is a versatile plant with many uses in the landscape and in the home. Consider adding it to an ornamental vegetable garden, as the nectar content will attract pollinators that boost the yield of tomatoes, squash, and other plants that rely on them. Add cornflower to a wildflower garden to attract bees and butterflies. Or, include blue cornflower in a cutting garden paired with annuals that lie opposite on the color wheel, like orange cosmos or yellow marigolds.

Like most common annuals, cornflower can be purchased as a nursery start, but it is also very easy to grow and maintain from seed. Cornflower can be seeded directly in the garden around the time of the last average frost date and can take up to three months to reach flowering maturity. For quicker flowering in cold climates, start seeds indoors six to eight weeks before the last frost. Grow it among other sturdy perennials, like rudbeckia or coneflower, that will act as natural supports for the stems. You can also stake the plant to avoid flopping.

Cornflower typically blooms for about 10 weeks (from May to mid-July), but you can increase the bloom time by deadheading spent flowers. Seeding the flower on a spaced-out schedule of every two weeks will also extend bloom time. Cornflower makes an excellent cut or dried flower. Cut the blossoms in their prime before they begin to wilt.

closeup of bachelor's buttons
The Spruce / Letícia Almeida 
bachelor's buttons
The Spruce / Letícia Almeida  
Bachelor's buttons
The Spruce / Letícia Almeida  

Light

Cornflower prefers full sun, similar to the conditions found in an open field, but it will tolerate a bit of shade in the afternoon, especially during the dog days of summer. Shady conditions all day causes the plant to grow leggy and makes it prone to flopping. It may then require staking.

Soil

Cornflower grows best in rich, well-drained garden soil. And, unlike other garden flowers, cornflower prefers its soil on the alkaline side, with a pH of 7.2 to 7.8. To achieve this, add crushed limestone to your garden beds if your soil tends toward acidic.

Water

Cornflower needs the equivalent of 1 inch of water per week, especially during the hottest months of July and August. You can assure this with a good watering once a week during times of little to no natural rainfall. Allow the soil to dry slightly in between waterings, but don't let it dry completely or the plant will flop. If this happens, a good, thorough drink will usually perk it up.

Temperature and Humidity

When it comes to temperature, cornflower is fairly agreeable, tolerating both a light freeze as well as a hot summer day. This plant thrives in 60 F to 80 F temperatures, but may need 85 F to 95 F to reach flowering maturity. Cornflower grows best with an average humidity range of 30 to 50 percent. Keep a close eye on your garden during humid spells, though, as this plant is susceptible to fungal disease under these conditions.

Fertilizer

Fertilize your cornflower monthly with a diluted liquid manure or compost tea mixture if your soil is poor. Start fertilizing in the early spring when the baby plants are 6 inches tall, and then continue throughout the summer. If you have rich soil, you don't really need to feed your flowers at all. Often mixing a bag or two of compost into the soil before sowing is enough for the entire season.

Types of Cornflower

Most people are drawn to traditional vibrant blue cornflowers. You'll often see this variety cropping up along roadsides or in the pastures of rural areas. However, other cultivars lend an equally attractive appeal, blooming in colors of white, pink, or red.

Below are a few of the favorites:

  • An heirloom variety, 'Blue boy' boasts thistle-shaped flowers of periwinkle blue. Plant this variety early in the spring for a show-stopping landscape display.
  • The 'Tall Double Mixed' series provides a great option for a cutting garden, as the blooms of white, pink, and blue make attractive dried arrangements.
  • The striking 'Blackball' variety provides an untraditional option, complete with crimson poms that hold nectar coveted by birds.
  • 'Dwarf Blue Midget' works well in beds and borders and begins blooming when the plant is 6 inches tall. This variety tops out at 12 inches, making it an excellent choice for containers.
  • The 'Burgundy Beauties Mix' includes plants that produce three colors of blooms: burgundy and white bicolor flowers, solid burgundy flowers, and burgundy flowers with white tips.
Blue cornflowers next to white daisies in garden

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Cornflower with purple petals and buds in front of yellow flowers

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Cornflower stems with purple-pink flowers in garden

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Blue cornflowers in a garden with other pink and purple flowers

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Pruning

While not necessary for proliferation, pruning a patch of cornflower can extend its bloom time. To do so, trim the long stems back to the secondary stems once the plants' first flowering period is over (usually around mid-summer). After the second bloom, cut the plants back to the ground, as they won't produce any more flowers. Or, you can pull the plants out from the roots to open up space for late-season plantings.

How to Grow Cornflower From Seed

As you might expect from a plant that self-seeds so readily, it's easy to propagate cornflower from seed. You can collect your own seeds from dried flower heads and store them over the winter until planting time. Or, you can also buy large, inexpensive packets of cornflower seeds, making this a great flower choice for frugal gardeners.

Here's how to grow cornflower from seed:

  1. Sow seeds in late spring directly into the garden after the last frost. (Don't be concerned about planting too early; Mother Nature will tell the seeds when to germinate.)
  2. Cover the seeds with a 1/2 inch of soil and keep the seedbed watered and moist until germination occurs (usually within 10 days in warm temperatures).
  3. Once sprouted, thin the seedlings to increase both blooming and vigor in the plants.

You can also start seeds indoors to ensure early flowering. Do so six to eight weeks before the last expected frost using a seed-starter mix in a seedling tray. Keep the soil moist and warm until the seedlings sprout, and then grow them in a bright location or sunny window until it's safe to transplant them outdoors.

Potting and Repotting Cornflower

When growing cornflower in pots or containers, make sure to keep the soil on the dry side to mimic pasture conditions. Porous clay or terracotta pots will help you achieve this. Choose well-drained soil with perlite, or you can also use a soilless medium made from organic material (similar to a cactus potting mix). Deadhead your potted cornflower for a tidy appearance, and be prepared for a short flowering season when grown this way.

Common Pests & Plant Diseases

An annual with a short growing season, cornflower rarely suffers from serious insect or disease problems. Still, when kept in wet, humid conditions, powdery mildew can occur late in the season, appearing as white spots on the leaves. This fungus rarely kills the plant and treatment is usually not necessary since the plant's lifecycle is short-lived anyway.

Aphids and mealybugs rarely, but sometimes, appear on a crop of cornflower. Control them by reducing the population with bursts of water from the garden hose. Avoid spraying pesticides around cornflowers, even organic ones, as both are harmful to bees and other pollinators that feed on them.

How to Get Cornflower to Bloom

Cornflower blooms best in bright and sunny conditions, so make sure to always plant your crop in an area that will receive a lot of sun. Deadheading may encourage more flowering, but with this particular annual, this practice is deemed unnecessary. If your cornflower is not showing blooms due to insufficient light, the only thing you can do is plan better next year and seed them in a sunnier spot.

Common Problems with Cornflower

Although rare, cornflower can fall victim to fungal infections when overwatered and crowded. Make sure to adhere to watering recommendations and thin seedlings to allow for proper airflow around the mature plant. In drought conditions, cornflower is prone to wilting, which can cause your crop to fall over and look unsightly. Usually, a good drink is all that is needed to perk them up. Occasionally, staking is required.

FAQ
  • What's the difference between Centuarea Cyranus (typical cornflower) and Centuarea Montana (mountain cornflower)?

    Centaurea cyanus is an annual that has been cultivated for centuries and has many common names, including cornflower, basket flower, and bachelor's button. The perennial species C. montana looks similar and also carries the common name of cornflower. Although the species are sometimes confused with one another, when viewed side by side, the differences are apparent. C. montana boasts the same rich blue color as the annual C. cyanus, but its flowers have single petals and a dark reddish-purple center not found in the annual. Also, the lance-shaped leaves are fuller than those of the annual variety, and the plant is generally a little shorter in stature.

  • Are the blooms of cornflower edible?

    The cornflower plant produces edible flowers, making it a great addition to any kitchen garden. These flowers are used to top salads, as their taste has been described as cucumber-like. Cornflower has long been used in herbal and natural medicines as an anti-inflammatory, as well.

  • How did cornflower get its name?

    This flower, native to Europe, often grew as a weed in cornfields or in fields of grain, like wheat, barley, rye, or oats.

Article Sources
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  1. A Cornflower Extract Containing N-Feruloylserotonin Reduces Inflammation in Human Skin by Neutralizing CCL17 and CCL22 and Inhibiting COX-2 and 5-LOX. National Library of Medicine.