Perennial Centaureas for the Garden
Martin & Janet Blow
Centaureas can make ideal garden plants with varieties suitable for the border, scree garden and rock garden or meadow plantings. With over 600 species of annuals, biennials and perennials theres plenty to choose from but many are frankly weedy so some care is needed.
We have a large collection of perennial types and this article is based on our experience of using them in our own garden. Centaureas were named after the centaur Chiron who in Greek mythology used plants of the genus to heal his wounds. Many centaureas are said to have wound healing properties including our native Centaurea scabiosa.
They are members of the Asteraceae family and so have composite flowers a central globular disc surrounded by florets (rays). They hail mainly from Europe (especially Mediterranean and southern Europe), west Asia and, (few only), America.
It isnt just the flowers that provide garden interest. Many varieties have grey leaves often divided into lacy filigree. The flower buds are clothed in woody, shiny or spiny scales and can be almost jewel-like.
Common names include Cornflower, Knapweed and Dusty Miller plus there are numerous folk names for the British natives.
Most are cold hardy (all mentioned here are) but some require good drainage to survive the winter wet. If kept in pots over winter you might find that the shoots rot off but dont throw away the pots as they normally reshoot from their roots.
One of my favourite natives is Centaurea nigra, known as Hardheads or Common Knapweed. It grows in all kinds of grassland including chalk cliff tops. It does very well on acid clay as well. It is a favourite of bees and butterflies all through the summer. It is naturally varying in flower shape and colour, and we also grow the variety 'Elstead' which has larger, frillier flowers. We have also been lucky enough to be given a pure white version (to be named 'Waterfall White' after the farm it occurred on). Normally nigra gets to 2 ft 6 in tall in poor soil and more like 4 ft in improved garden soil. Centaurea nigra grows on our village green where it is regularly mown down and it flowers at no more than 4 inches tall an obvious candidate for the Chelsea chop!
Another native, Greater Knapweed (Centaurea scabiosa), grows well in our garden as does its white variant (f. albiflora), which has been cultivated from a single plant spotted in the wild near Pershore.
All of these plants like an open sunny site and are completely trouble free. They can be propagated by seed, division and root cuttings.
There are many varieties suitable for the garden that enjoy the rough and tumble of the crowded border or naturalistic planting. Centaurea macrocephala has perhaps one of the most iconic flowers of the genus. The large globular yellow flowers resemble a giant thistle or cardoon flower. The buds are deep bronze and attractive in their own right. The branched stems carry flowers for only a short period in mid summer and unlike most types they dont rebloom even if dead headed. And it would be a shame to dead head too promptly as the dead ray florets form a wig of brown hair atop the head-like seed pods (macrocephala = big head). If the seed heads are left through the winter they provide food for finches and small mammals. The leaves are tongue shaped and rather course. For a more refined look to the border choose Centaurea glastifolia with its candelabra stems topped with silver-scaled buds and yellow flowers that are a smaller version of macrocephala. Again this variety rarely reblooms after its mid summer glory.
There are quite a few varieties with feathery silver-backed leaves and large pink flowers. They are distinguished by the shape and form of the buds but behave the same in the garden liking normal soil, sun or almost very light shade. All benefit from regular dead headings and a hard prune after a flush of flower has finished. These include Centaurea woronowii, C. nogmovii, C. 'John Coutts', and C. dealbata.
'John Coutts' is shorter and perhaps weaker growing than the others. With this exception they need some room to grow and may need a few twiggy supports if grown in rich soils. The variety C. dealbata 'Steenbergii' has intensely coloured deep rose flowers. Centaurea jacea has feathery pink flowers and rough haired stems and leaves. It represents a very complex group of species over which there is much debate and to-ing and fro-ing of names. From this group we also grow C. phrygia with similar flowers but different shaped buds and the cultivar 'Caramia', which seems to be a hybrid between the two. All are easy and self supporting and really popular with bees.
Most gardeners will know Centaurea montana, the Mountain Bluet, for its purple blue flowers, grey-green leaves and low growing, running habit. Most plants in this group will run but not all so vigorously as the basic species: indeed some we wish would be more vigorous! They are also known for getting powdery mildew by mid summer. The solution is to cut back hard and dispose of diseased leaves and stems and to regularly lime acid soils.
There are lots of montana varieties with more arriving all the time. The white-flowered 'Alba' has black stamens and hint of purple at centre when mature. More delicately petaled is 'Lady Flora Hastings' but identical in other respects to 'Alba'. 'Carnea' is flesh pink, and 'Joyce' mid rose. 'Parham' is similar to 'Joyce' at first but soon takes on a lavender tone. 'Gold Bullion' has flowers the same as the species but the bold yellow of the leaves seem to enhance the flower colour making it appear more intensely blue. 'Jordy' (aka 'Jody' aka C. jacea 'Jody') is a hybrid including montana (but almost certainly not with jacea!) with deep burgundy flowers a must have plant. There are several purple flowered varieties including the royal purple 'Purpurea' and the slightly paler 'Violetta'. 'Purple Heart' is white with an attractive purple centre as is the identical 'Amethyst in Snow'.
The rare C. montana 'Ochraleuca' has ivory white flowers and may be a hybrid with the glorious Centaurea cheiranthifolia, which has very similar but bigger flowers. The latter is one of our favourites with its very large ivory white flowers over a long period. Closely related to montana is the lower growing Centaurea triumfettii, indeed 'Blewit' is a hybrid between the two introduced by Joe Sharman.
One of the loveliest varieties is C. triumfettii 'Hoar Frost' with its white flowers with a breath of pink just tinting them. 'Blue Dreams' is a quite recent introduction from Joe Sharman that, unsurprisingly, has clear blue flowers.
The lowest growing of this type is the ground hugging C. triumfettii ssp. stricta with lavender or pinkish flowers on 4 6 inch stems. The rarer variety C triumfettii ssp. cana 'Rosea' appears identical to the lay gardener (like me!).
If we ever get another hot dry summer youll notice that triumfettii varieties may become dormant until rain comes again.
Low growing varieties
For the alpine garden there are many varieties with new species being discovered all the time in the Middle East / southern Europe. Centaurea pulcherrima (beautiful) has been grown in British gardens for some time for its pink cornflowers, elegant buds and silver-grey leaves. It is distinguished from the very similar C. bagadensis by its buds pale brown soft versus dark tan, hard. One alpine type where Id recommend not investigating the buds too closely is C. rupestris with small yellow thistle flowers and long, nearly invisible spines on its buds ouch! This is actually quite touchy to grow often rotting off in summer if not given really good drainage. It does, however, often re-sprout from its roots. Centaurea simplicicaulis and her big sister C. bella (= pretty) form low mounds of ferny, grey-green leaves and have pale pink flowers on short stems, bella being slightly taller. These two are great subjects for edging a bed or border.
Centaureas for wildlife
Centaureas are one of the best bee plants in the garden, particularly for bumblebees. In our garden we have spotted many species of bumblebee regularly visiting centaureas in large numbers including Large Red-Tailed Bumblebee, Carder Bees, Buff-Tailed Bumblebee, White-Tailed Bumblebee and Early Bumblebee.
Butterflies are also attracted to the flowers to fuel up with nectar.
Whilst deadheading flowers is useful for us gardeners, its well worth leaving seed heads on varieties such as nigra, scabiosa, and alpestris to allow charms of goldfinches (and occasionally redpolls) to come take their fill of the seeds, even in mid summer and particularly through the winter.
First published in the Cheshire & Friends Group Newsletter, Spring 2011
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 29.
© Copyright for this article: Martin & Janet Blow
This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2012. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.