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No matter what you call them — cornflowers, bachelor's buttons, basket flower or the old-fashioned blue bottom — members of the genus Centaurea are wonderful additions to any garden.

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A plant native of Europe, bachelor's buttons have been grown and appreciated in gardens for centuries.

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The name bachelor's button refers to the long-lasting quality of the flower when it's cut and placed in the buttonhole of a suit or shirt.

Even if they weren't great cut flowers — which they are — the blue color of the species would make them desirable.

There are many species of Centaurea, but the most readily available as seeds or plants are C. cyanus, cornflower, or bachelor's button; C. americana, basket flower; and C. montana, mountain bluet, or perennial cornflower.

The term bachelor's button refers to the long-lasting quality of the flower stem when it is cut and placed in the buttonhole of a suit or shirt.

Centaureas produce single and double, fringed blooms on plants that range in height from 10 inches to 2 feet, depending on the species or cultivar — basket flower can reach 4 feet tall. The shape of the flower petals resembles that of thistles, but the plant's leaves do not have the spines. The leaves often are attractive gray-green.

Mountain bluet grows about 2 feet tall with an equal spread. The flowers are usually lavender blue, but you may also find plants with rose, pale yellow or white blooms.

Dwarf forms of Centaurea, especially the Florence series and the Midget mixture, with their 10- to 20-inch height and naturally compact, bushy growth habits, are good choices for edging a garden or filling out a container.

Colors include violet, red, pink, lavender, blue and white.

When shopping for Centaurea at the garden center, look for plants with lots of buds and only a few, if any, open blossoms. Avoid leggy plants, and those that are single stemmed. You want to start out with compact, well-branched plants, especially because of the Centaurea's habit of becoming leggy as the season progresses.

The leaves should not be wilted, even though they are likely to recover when you get them home and plant them. Watch for signs of powdery mildew and rust.

Plant Centaureas in full or partial sun in any average, slightly alkaline soil. They are not too particular about fertility, but they do great with some compost or dried manure worked into the soil before planting.

Many bachelor's buttons branch naturally, but you can pinch the growing tips to encourage more branching, bushier growth and more flowers.

Centaureas are excellent flowers for cutting, whether you use them fresh or dried. Because Centaureas are quite drought resistant, they do well in containers where the soil can dry out quickly. Place them in window boxes or standard containers with other annuals.

Source/photos: National Garden Bureau (www.ngb.org)

June 2001

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