Cornflower (Centaurea cyanus)

CornflowerThe annual cornflower once grew throughout the UK and was so common, particularly on sandy, slightly acidic soils, that it became a troublesome weed. Even the naturalist poet John Clare acknowledged their negative impact on the productivity of crops when he wrote “Troubling the cornfields with their destroying beauty”.

Today the truly native plant (though seeds are quite often scattered around by farmers – but they usually do not last for long) is now only found on a handful of sites across the country, perhaps the best of all being on the Isle of Wight. Because of this dramatic decline, cornflowers are now included in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and are classified as endangered – incredible when you think that not so long ago, farm workers would gather bunches of the radiant blue flowers and send them up to London flower markets to help supplement their meagre wages.

The majority of wild flowers we come across in our countryside which are described as “blue” are in fact a sort of blue/purple colour. However, the cornflower really is a true azure blue and of course was well enough known by everyone to be readily understood as a shade of blue – cornflower blue. Because of this vibrant blue colour, cornflowers have long been loved as cut flowers, adding a zing to any arrangement and usefully, they also last in good condition for some time after cutting. They are also excellent as a dried or pressed flower, as the colour does not diminish with time. Because of these traits, the cornflower was often used as a buttonhole flower and also traditionally young men would give these beautiful blooms to “divine their success with their sweethearts”, leading to two country names for the flower – boutonniere flower and bachelor’s button.

The cornflower is the national flower of Germany and the reason it was chosen gives rise to a rather lovely story. When Napoleon forced Queen Louise of Prussia from Berlin, she hid her children in a cornfield and kept them entertained and quiet by weaving wreaths of cornflowers. One of her children, Wilhelm, later became the Emperor of Germany. Remembering his mother's bravery, he made the cornflower a national emblem of unity.

So why has this wonderfully summery flower of our cornfields become so rare? Well, of course many of the herbicides used today kill the little seedling plants as they emerge, but also improved techniques in cleaning the seed corn that is to be planted the following year has had a big impact. Once a frequent contaminant of cereals such as rye and also flax (the seeds are around 3mm long and therefore a similar size to small cereal grains) the cornflower seeds were duly drilled each year along with the crop, thereby ensuring that they were spread around the local area. However, early in the 20th Century great improvements were made in seed-cleaning technology and as a result most cornflower seeds were removed before the seed corn was planted, breaking the important link between man and crop that had been so crucial to the little blue flower’s survival.

Peter Thompson

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