One Name To Rule Them All: Get With Gomphrena

Globe Amaranth, Gomphrena globosa (Amaranthaceae)

Globe Amaranth, Gomphrena globosa (Amaranthaceae)

Jerry, what is the scientific name for Bachelor’s buttons? Answer: Bachelor’s buttons is a common name given to several plants. If you learn the scientific name of the right version of bachelor’s buttons, you have a unique key to unlock information about it in books, libraries and on the internet. A scientific name applies to one plant. It is unique.

Common names apply to many things. Bachelors have buttons. Australia has a bachelor’s button. It is a native, ground hugging perennial, Craspedia variabilis. I even know one of the botanists who has studied it: Joy Everett, of the National Herbarium of NSW.

Bachelor’s buttons is a common name and it may apply to various unrelated plants, from temperate shrubs to tropical annuals across planet Earth. The questioner on talkback radio seeking to grow bachelor’s buttons replied that it wasn’t a native species.

When I tried to describe various bachelor’s buttons in an attempt to find the right one I remembered what it used to be like when I was a garden centre manager in Beckenham, London. A significant amount of time there was spent interpreting descriptions of a plant or a product or a problem to see if we sold it, or could acquire it for customers.

My favourite bachelor’s buttons is the one I grew up with – Kerria japonica, a hardy, suckering, winter deciduous shrub. I had them planted by the hundred to decorate council housing estates in north London. But that wasn’t the right one.

In my Brisbane garden I sow Gomphrena globosa, bachelor’s buttons, from October to January. It’s an odd, edible tropical paper daisy. Maybe that’s it, the questioner replied.

In Sydney I once devised a spring wildflower meadow, and amongst the mixture of species were ladybird poppies and bachelor’s buttons, Centaurea cyanus. That bachelor’s buttons is a welcome weed, an annual that once brightened fields of ripening cereal crops in southern England in the days before selective herbicides eliminated them and all that drink their nectar. Both my grandmother’s grew this bachelor’s buttons. No, that’s definitely not it, was the reply.

In my London garden I grew bachelor’s buttons in terracotta bowls filled with leafmould enriched, woodland soil. In summer I stood the bowls in saucers of water. Ranunculus aconitifolius flowers resent drought. London was sometimes too hot and dry for them, so I doubt this plant would survive in SE Qld. No point mentioning that bachelor’s buttons.

I always like to have some organic bachelor’s buttons, Tanacetum parthenium, in my garden. Natural pyrethrum, extracted from this annual herb, is accepted in organic gardens for spraying sap-sucking and chewing pests. I spot spray, it’s safe and effective for ridding citrus of those horrid, Bronze Orange (aka Stink) Bugs which are currently copulating in my kaffir lime. It makes a nice cool season flowering annual, especially the double flowered form, in SEQld. No. It’s not that one.

Quick interlude while I check my limes for stink bugs.

If I was in Tasmania, I’d be thinking of the hardy herbaceous perennial bachelor’s buttons, Centaurea montana. In London, my mother planted it in our herbaceous border in front of delphiniums. Bees adored it. No. Not that one either.

In the end we ran out of radio time. The closest we came to agreeing on a species was the Gomphrena globosa version of bachelor’s buttons.  It’s certainly the best of the bunch of bachelor’s buttons to grow in the subtropics. Such lurid flowers! I started mass planting these in Sydney Botanic Gardens, they looked brilliant amongst purple Salvia x splendens, the common bedding salvia, in the Flower Bed Lawn surrounding the Choragic Monument.

You can sow Gomphrena now in a sunny, freely draining border, preferably in all day sunshine. Broadcast seed, then lightly, shallowly rake it into the surface. Cover with the thinnest veneer of chopped sugarcane.

Tip: adult plants are drought tolerant, seedlings less so. Water well after sowing and daily until germination (4-5 days), then regularly until plants are established. Ideally, water alternate days and allow the soil to just go dry in between each watering.

Please try to remember scientific names, or at least write them down. Common names may be easy to remember, but sometimes the struggle to find the right one can be exhausting.

If there’s one thing that unites bachelor’s buttons around the world it is their beauty, and if there’s one thing that’s unique about each different kind of bachelor’s button, it’s their scientific name. A scientific name is a universal key to information. Please use it.

Jerry Coleby-Williams

9th November 2014