Not everything in the garden can be viewed in black and white. The choice to call something a weed or a flower, what’s useful or useless, what we allow and what we expel from the garden is very different depending on who the gardener is, and how often do we throw away what has value for what’s pretty? These plants are liminal beings within the garden. Ones who represent both poles within a quality. Wild and yet refined by man, pretty yet basic, the good and the bad all in one. In short, beauty and the beast in one flower.
Centaurea as a family are most common in the wildflower meadow where they perform a valuable role as a nectar source for bees, beneficial insects, and butterflies. In fact research from Germany has shown that the nectar of Centaurea is especially high in sugar at 75%. Flowering from June to August it also provides a late source of nectar when other plants have finished. It is an annual so benefits from the regime of the meadow system. In a traditional wildflower meadow the hay would be cut in the autumn and gathered off the land by raking. This method of collection breaks up the soil and knocks out the seed out for the following year. The seed coat is broken down over the wintertime so that it can germinate with the warmth of spring. From it’s meadow and cornfield habitat we get its most common name the cornflower. Modern agricultural methods and the introduction of herbicides have created a downturn in Centaurea and other field weeds and consequently there has been a decline in other species that depend on them.
As a flower it is the meadow’s brightest blue with a beautiful ring of highly cut petals around the central button. This blue colour comes from protocyanin which just happens to be the chemical that produces the red in a rose. The reason the same chemical could produce intense blue and intense red used to be thought to be caused by a pH difference in the plants. However, new research shows that it’s the ratio of iron, magnesium, and calcium ions together with flavone. Even in its wild form Centaurea cyanus the blue is remarkable, it truly is a star of the meadow heaven, but when it was brought into the garden by nurserymen they were able to bring new brilliance to its petals.
The leaves have always retained their wild look. Lanceolate they form rough crowns that the flowers rise from. This close arrangement of leaves at ground level serves a purpose in the wild. It means that competing plants are kept away and the Centaurea can flourish. For the gardener, however, this can cause problems as it means that though you get a lovely show of flower the leaves can be less than harmonious with the rest of the planting.
Being a meadow flower also means that it needs full sun to thrive and a moist but free draining soil. It is among the first flowers to show a lack of watering and so it’s best in the soil rather than pots which tend to dry out too quickly. The best way to use it is as a front of border to mid border drift. Sow seed in the autumn or spring where you want them to grow and keep the area weeded. As the plants come through you will need to thin the seedlings but they will quickly knit together to give a fine show. They look especially fine when contrasted with golden yellow flowers such as coreopsis or golden rod.
Medicinally they have been used for centuries. The leaves have been used as a decoction for rheumatism, while the flowers have been used for eyes, as a mouthwash for bleeding gums, and for dropsy. Internally it has been given as a bitter tonic and stimulant for the digestion and liver, and it’s suggested that this same decoction of flowers could help improve resistance to infections. Because of its gentle nature the seeds were given as a mild laxative for children.
The petals are edible and add an interesting colour point to salads or as a garnish on desserts. Care should be taken though if using them on light coloured foods as bleeding can occur from the petals soiling the effect. They are also a signature ingredient in Lady Grey tea the blend formed for the wife of Earl Grey of equal teatime fame.
When we turn to the botanical name we see two stories included. The first part Centaurea was given to honor the most famous of all centaurs and one of the great healers of the ancient world, Chiron. He it was who taught the use of herbs and roots including giving Achillea to Achilles. It was Chiron who gave Jung the archetype of the wounded healer. This is a unique form within Jung’s pantheon because unlike other archetypes it is Chiron and Chiron alone who can perform this function. The mortally wounded centaur though unable to heal himself is able to heal the world and teach it the use of herbs and roots. “It is his own hurt that gives a measure of his power to heal.” Chiron was the teacher of most of the heroes of ancient Greece and Centaurea has been linked since ancient times to him and his powers of healing.
But Chiron was more than just a great teacher of herbs. He represented the pinnacle of a dichotomy in the Greek mind, that of the harmonious monster. When we look at the stories we see very clearly human failings cast into the bodies of monsters. The cyclopes, Medusa, drakon, harpies, all of the monsters that were spawned in the myths can find their equivalent in human behavior. With the centaurs however there is a problem. They are half human and the other half is a powerful, useful animal associated with humans, the horse. There is a nature which though wild and given to excess is more human than monster. So they become harmonious or liminal. A blend of the human and the animal where either can take the fore. In some centaurs the wild, lustful drunkenness displayed is seen as a negative attribute. In Chiron it is the mentor and the healer which comes to the fore but his is not the healing of refined men. Chiron teaches the use of roots specifically and the herbs of the poor man, this was the healing art he taught to kings. In him is seen the perfect balance of base nature and refined humanity but in direct proportion to his own wounds. The wild subdued for the greater good. Though in later legends the story is told that Chiron uses the cornflower to heal the poison arrow wounding him most agree that this was a palliative rather than a true cure and that eventually he always died from his injuries.
The second half of the name “cyanus” is also tied to a story. Though it’s true that there is a colour cyan, this too gets its name from the flower myth. In fact the first recorded use of the word specifically for the colour is in 1879 and is tied to Centaurea cyanus as a dye plant, well after Linnaeus named it.
For the story of Cyanus we must move from Greece to Rome. Here the goddess Flora had a devoted and exquisite youth who was loved her deeply and the flowers she was responsible for. He would spend all his time in the cornfields weaving garlands of the flowers he found there. Every day he would return to the city with a wreath of cornflowers and would lay them on Flora’s shrine. Day and in and day out this was his habit until one day Cyanus was found dead in a patch of the cornflowers which he loved so much. No wounds were visible and no one knew what had caused the beautiful youth to die. Around him lay half finished garlands of flowers and as they carried his body to the city Flora decreed that the cornflower should forever bear his name. So flower and colour are a permanent memorial to a handsome boy who loved flowers.
Within the folklore of the cornflower there are a number of associations with love. One of its most common names is Bachelor’s Buttons. This comes from a tradition of young men who were in love wearing it in their button hole. Should the flower quickly wilt and fade then it was said that love wasn’t returned by the object of their desire.
For the French it is the Bleuet de France which was chosen as the symbol of the 1918 Armistice for the same reason that the British chose the poppy as the symbol of their remembrance. Both flowers benefited from the churning of the soil by shells and trenches and both were a common sight on the battlefields after the war. This flower of the poor country boy and the teller of true love lives on as a memorial to those who gave their lives in that terrible and wasteful war.
Finally, two other deaths were memorialized with cornflowers. When Carter opened the tomb of Tutankhamun it was discovered that cornflowers had been used in the funeral wreath of the boy king. Secondly, John F. Kennedy Jr. chose to wear a cornflower at his wedding in memory of his father who’s favorite flower it was.
© Peter C. Simms and The Garden of Gods and Monsters, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Peter C. Simms and The Garden of Gods and Monsters with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.