March 29th, 2011
Centaurea cyanus ‘Black Magic’

photo: Centaurea cyanus Black Magic
2007-03-24. Bachelor Button/Cornflower. Austin, TX

This post was published originally on 2007-03-24 and updated with data for 2008 and 2011.
The seed packet from Botanical Interests gives the common name for Centaurea cyanus as bachelor button. For us southerners, bachelor buttons are Gomphrena globosa. Julie at the Human Flower Project recognized it immediately as a cornflower, even though it was not the blue once so commonly identifiable that it is found in a box of Crayola crayons. I was going to go into a rant wondering whether children today connected their crayon colors with real flowers. The truth is, I’ve never seen a living cornflower before I grew this one. And then I chose a selection which is not cornflower blue.

Why don’t I like more cheerful flowers? This cornflower is a deep, plummy purple, a funereal maroon that, in flower marketing, is referred to as black. Morticia Addams would like it–she wouldn’t even have to snip off the flower before creating her bouquet. The plant itself is about two feet high with silvery gray foliage. From a distance, the dark flowers look like furry black caterpillars attacking the plant.

The seed packet said that cornflowers were drought tolerant. However, I’m not sure that translates into heat-tolerant. As soon as the mercury touched 80 today, they drooped. Instructions say to plant them in early spring before the last frost…unless you live in the south, of course! We’re suppose to plant them in late summer or early fall.

I planted these on September 11, 2006 and they just bloomed this week (late March 2007), more than six months later. They sprouted quickly and I transplanted them into the meadow close to the yellow irises thinking that the purple and yellow would make a nice combination. The irises aren’t blooming yet. None of Austin’s mild winter freezes bothered them, not even the ice storm or the night we got down to 25 degrees. They sent up flower spikes about the same time the cilantro did but took a long time to form buds and even a longer time for the buds to open. Every day I looked, expecting to see them open, and every day the flowers remained a tight closed ball. Then I went to New York and when I came back they were blooming. Maybe a watched cornflower never opens.

Dateline: 2007-2008

Discovered some seeds left over from last year and planted them in the west border where I’m clearing out the bearded irises that rotted in this summer’s rains.

The cornflowers (I still want to call them bachelor buttons) are about three inches tall and have two sets of true leaves. They are being smothered by competing baby blue eyes, so I dig up the whole bed and replant only the bachelor buttons spacing them about 5 inches apart.

In the mid-70s today and tomorrow. Transplant more bachelor button seedlings. From one group by the agave, three groups: 10 in place, 10 by butterfly bush, and 8 behind maiden grass.

First flower. Even though I planted the bachelor buttons two months later than last year it seemed to make no difference. They bloomed in exactly the same week. I prefer to plant them later if I can because then I don’t have to water as much and besides, I’m always running behind.

I think I will always grow bachelor buttons now because they are so easy and economical, although they did not self-sow. Two years of flowers from a $1.79 packet of seeds is satisfying. The effect is less somber than last year mostly because I have allowed the cilantro to overrun the meadow like a wave of white foam.

Dateline: 2010-2011

Sow half a packet of new seeds. Botanical Interests. 1 gram @ $1.79. Unseasonably warm ahead of a predicted hard freeze. Today’s high: 82°F; low, 70°F.

First flower. I never managed to thin these bachelor buttons so the plants are crowded and short. This dry spring has encouraged an abundance of pink evening primroses behind them. This is one of those unplanned combinations that bring delight.

photo: Centaurea cyanus Black Magic
2011-03-29. Bachelor Button/Cornflower. Austin, TX

by M Sinclair Stevens

15 Responses to post “Centaurea cyanus ‘Black Magic’”

  1. From Pam/Digging (Austin):

    I don’t know. I like that maroon color too. It would look nice near my purple smoke tree, with something green in between.

  2. From Susan:

    I’m always drawn to those dark shades, especially dark purples and maroons. I’d like to add more of them to my garden.

  3. From Julie (Austin):

    Thank you for a marvelous visit, yesterday!

    Your beautiful cornflower reminds me of garnet, January birthstone, and this bloom even shines. (Your up and comer sweet pea may be in harmony).

    As for “cheer” factor, I have met many a dark bachelor.

    Hope you will write a post about your daffodils and, being a cyberwhiz, create a url for their smell.

  4. From Angelina (Oregon):

    You have just got me thinking about the different ‘favorite’ flowers I had when I was a kid: pansies, carnations, and cornflowers. I still love them all but just rediscovered the cornflowers last spring when they popped up as volunteers in my new garden. I recognized them even before they bloomed and was so excited. They turned out to be the classic blue ones, but I like the darker ones too. I always called them “bachelor buttons” as a kid.

    I don’t remember having any favorite flowers as a child. I grew up mostly in the desert southwest and on Air Force bases in housing with common yards of plain grass. I’d say that my love of flowers now, rather than nostalgic, is a reaction against my childhood. I hadn’t thought of it in that light before, though. — mss

  5. From r sorrell (Austin):

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen a cornflower in person. I’m not sure I ever associated the crayon color with an actual flower, either. Seems to me that would be a nice flower to have in any color, though.

  6. From Craig:

    Excellent observations, M.

    Cornflowers are drought tolerant but they also prefer cool weather, especially during the night. I used to grow them as a perennial and even though the days were hitting the 80s and 90s the Centaureas held their own because it always cooled down into the high 50s and 60s at night.

    The nursery I worked for once had a plant naming contest and invited employees to look at 20 different plants and decide on their favorite. There was a range of colors to select from, including whites, pinks, blues, rose, and purples. The results were very interesting and helped guide future breeding goals. The men selected pastels while the women chose deep jewel tones. Their wasn’t as clear a preference for a particular hue as long as the color was dark and saturated. I have seen the same hold true over different ethnic and socio-economic groups. It was eye-opening and I’ve never forgotten it.

    Very interesting, Craig. The first thing I learned in gardening is that, most of the time, books and seed packet instructions were written for people who garden in some place like Connecticut. I now know that if a seed packet says “plant as soon as the ground can be worked in the spring” it typically translates for us to, “plant in the fall”.

    I’ll have to pay more attention to how people react to colors, now. I’ve always preferred strong colors, especially intense jewel tones. I never figured out why girls are supposed to like pastels, although I’ve come to appreciate very delicate pinks and apricots in the roses I photograph. — mss

  7. From CyndiF:

    I like the deep tone of this coneflower as well. Of course, I gravitate towards intense hues over pastels because here in Colorado, the sun bleaches out all delicate shades to a muddy off-white. Do you have the same problem in Austin, or is it the thin air that is the real problem here?

    I was going to mention the quality of light, too, so I’m glad you brought it up. Our strong sunlight does bleach out colors which is one reason that people like all those bright Mexican flowers, especially in the summer. To have muted English colors you have to have muted English sunlight, I think. — mss

  8. From Rachel from Austin:

    I had a blue cornflower finally bloom yesterday. I know I planted these last fall, but I was starting to think the tall plants coming up were some kind of noxious weed. If I were a more meticulous notetaker, I’d be less worried! I’ll try to photograph it this morning, as a complement to your non-blue cornflower.

  9. From Rachel from Austin:

    There, it’s posted. If you’d like to see a living blue cornflower, and wouldn’t mind traveling to the far north reaches of Austin, you’d be more than welcome to come visit my little garden-in-progress. My barky little dog would want to bark at you the whole time, I’m afraid.

    I’ve learned not to pull plants I don’t recognize. But I don’t think I could garden (or do anything) without taking notes. I’d love to see your garden sometime. I’ll email you. — mss

  10. From Annie in Austin:

    I must have planted the blue ones long ago – we called the Centaureas Bachelor Buttons in Illinois – but they didn’t make a big impression. Perennials and vines captured my attention early on and flowers from seeds were always interesting extras but never an essential. But now larkspur is a necessity!

    My favorite flowers as a young girl were iris, lily of the valley and lilacs. Lot of good that does me now.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    Cornflowers are not very showy, not very impressive. In fact, few things I grow are. I was thinking as I watched the cilantro and larkspur take over this year that my design motto might be, “Managing attractive weeds.” My first criterion in choosing a plant has become, “Will it grow?” — mss

  11. From Dawn:

    My mother had light blue cornflowers in her garden when I was a child. They were out in a grassy wildflower field of sorts with bachelor buttons and some other orange and red flowers…maybe poppies and cosmos. It’s been a lifetime ago, so I can’t recall too clearly.

    I love your ‘Black Magic’ flowers. They might be a bit too grand for Morticia. They’d work quite well in a really steamy Anne Rice novel though.


    How lovely that you remember your mother’s garden. My dad was in the Air Force and we moved every couple of years and lived on base so we never had a garden, or pets, growing up. — mss

  12. From Julie:

    Wonderful to remember that fine day last year in your garden and this particular garnet bloom. My own bachelor’s button planting didn’t fare well last year (I didn’t sow again), maybe because I didn’t thin them enough? They were spindly but crowded, and didn’t bloom all that much. Too much shade where I had them? that’s what one neighbor surmised.

    Have you tried Centaurea montana (mountain bluet)? I think we have it too hot here for them but a friend back in Kentucky grew them with great success and and they were beautiful, bigger flowers than cyanus with fewer “petals.” Here’s a yummy photo, from France. And they’re perennials.

    Those are quite pretty. I have a mistrust of perennials, though. Won’t they just fry in our summer heat?…rather like the California poppies. Over the years I’ve begun to shy away from trying to keep any plants growing over the summer. I think that’s why I’ve fallen in love with annuals again. Thinning is important. The larkspur I never got around to thinning is only a foot tall and spindly. The others are about 3 feet tall and branching. — mss

  13. From Jean Ann:

    I simply love that color…I have often looked at that particular color of cornflower and decided I would get the seeds and sow them…but for some reason, something else always gets priority. I will definitely make this a must.

    They go well with the white of the cilantro. I already had so many blue flowers that I wanted something different. This year I even tried to replace my blue love-in-the-mist with some rose ones, but the seedlings got crowded out by other things and I don’t know if any will bloom. — mss

  14. From Esther Montgomery Southern England:

    I used to like brightly coloured flowers (the traditional blue cornflowers included–and even brighter ones–like Rudbeckia) until I moved to my present house – where it is very hot. (At least, it is hot for me! I used to live in Scotland, then in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, so Southern England seems glaringly bright and warm in contrast.)

    Now, I enjoy greens and whites. I wince when I pass a garden full of dahlias. In the winter, though, I like red stemmed plants.

    Also, thank you for listing Esther in the Garden among your favourites on Blotanical. I appreciate it as an honour. It is also very encouraging!

    I like cool green and whites, too. Or now, when my meadow looks like a blue and white china plate. About Blotanical, my pleasure. You have a very unique style of writing. Please stay true to who you are; that is, don’t change the nature of your blog based on other people’s advice for chasing the popular vote. — mss

  15. From Karen, England:

    Those dark flowers are so IT, you just have to use them with the right contrasts – that’s why I wrote the first and most comprehensive book on dark plants after many years of research – check it out. ‘Black Magic and Purple Passion’ is now in its third edition and was followed by my books on contrasting colours, ‘Emeralds’, ‘Silver Lining’, ‘Gold Fever’. USDA zones and I worked extensively with american breeder.