PLANT OF THE WEEK #32: Psephellus (Centaurea) bellus

Sometimes you don’t love a plant straight away.  Sometimes you first have to go through the process of getting to know it, like a kind of courtship, becoming familiar with its quirks and quibbles before you fall head over heels.  For me, a small-growing perennial cornflower called Psephellus bellus is one such plant.  The first year I grew it I was decidedly underwhelmed with it and it very nearly ended up on the compost heap of failed loves past.  But as with all new courtships the rough times often end up defining the dynamics of the relationship in the long term and I’m glad to say that, now, I wouldn’t be without this most useful and bomb-proof perennial.  I’m head over heels!  

Up until very recently it was known as Centaurea bella.  It’s reclassification doesn’t matter – a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. It grows to around 15cm high, flowering at 30cm or so with dainty, feathery, cornflower-like blooms in their hundreds in succession over several months, from late winter into early summer.  Its small stature and daintiness is completely at odds with its tough, never-say-die attitude.  The foliage is grey-green with pinnate leaves that are handsome, neat and excellent at outcompeting weeds, but it doesn’t bother taller growing plants around it.

The first year I grew Psephellus bellus our courtship was rocky because I was too lavish with my attention to it.  I generally eschew the saying ‘treat them mean, keep them keen,’ there’s a bit of misogyny about it, but where Psephellus bellus is concerned it’s an apposite maxim.  I planted three 8cm pots out in my new front garden several years ago, which had received a liberal lashing of compost in preparation.  This was a very serious misstep in our courtship.

It grew okay, just okay, forming moderately sized clumps in its first year, but I’d placed them wrongly and ended up dividing them and moving them to the edges of the bed they initially went into.  Undertaking the task of division while not yet really liking the plant, I was mean with my handling of it.  I greedily divided the clumps into single stems, some with no discernable roots attached, just pushing the little slips into the ground on the edge of the border.  Would they survive?  I didn’t much care to be perfectly honest.  In hindsight this is where the love-in really began.

As the end of winter approached it was clear all the divisions not only survived but positively thrived, not a single one had turned up its toes.  Not only that, but it was also clear from observing their vigour over winter that it was growing into areas with terrible soil at the very edge of the bed.  It hadn’t grabbed me in its first year because the soil it was planted in initially was far too good for it.  It prefers terrible soil and will grow happily in skeletal soils with no attention or extra water.

The stage at which I’m besotted with it the most is the long lead up to the first flowers emerging in late winter.  When the days are cold and decidedly drab, Psephellus bellus begins to initiate flowering in the most adorable way.  The flower buds are like little drumstick heads in steely silver, held on slim stems well above the foliage in profusion.  They build in number over mid to late winter before the flowers begin unfurling and it’s this stage, when the plant is a mass of little balls of steel, that my amorousness for it is at its peak.  

That being said, the flowers themselves are lovely too and emerge in succession over a solid four months before they finish entirely, coinciding with the onset of the hottest summer weather.  But then my second-favorite stage begins – the spent flower heads persist, holding above the foliage for the remainder of summer, adding a textural oaten brown fluff that floats above the attractive foliage.  The foliage itself never wilts or looks like it struggles, no matter how harsh summer gets. It has no downtime in which you could struggle to find something to love about it.  

Psephellus bellus is a plant that should come highly recommended in every garden centre but I’m sad to say it’s not yet as widely known here in southeastern Australia as it deserves to be.  If you see it for sale, grab it and give it a go, I promise you won’t be disappointed.  Divide it greedily, treat it meanly and you’ll soon be in the grips of a torrid love affair that will be with you for many years to come.  


James Beattie is a gardener working in Melbourne.  A graduate of Burnley, his work has since seen him traverse indigenous habitat restoration and management in the greater Melbourne area and writing content for Gardening Australia on ABC TV.  For the past three years he’s been running his own private gardening business focusing on plant-driven garden design and implementation.

Discussion

  1. Thank you James. Great to hear such a good write up on this plant I have just discovered. I bought a dozen or so from Marcus at Nobbies View Nursery, Shoreham at the end of last summer for my beach house garden. They actually looked a bot ratty then and Marcus practically gave them away. However, I did manage to divide them straight away and whilst I planted most of them In Balnarring I brought several of the most dead looking ones home to ‘nurse’ in my nursery. Actually I have really completely neglected them and they are behaving just as you describe – they have grown healthily over the winter, bulking up their lovely leaves and now ‘dah-dah’ – I have masses of buds and a few fluffy mauve flowers. They do well in a vase too. I imagine they must look fab at my beach house too – if only I could get there!! Maybe soon………

    1. I suspect it’s positively thriving in your absence, Jacqui. And yes, I’m forever picking flowering stems to pop in my specimen vase on the kitchen sink – it makes doing the dishes that much more bearable.

  2. Now I’m wondering what the grey leafed, pinkish cornflower-carrying shrub/subshrub was that I’ve seen all around dry parts of Italy. I had assumed that it was this plant. But I’m now thinking I need loads of this P bellus. Traditional perennial border plantings really don’t allow you to start with plants this low, so for years I literally overlooked them. But now that I’ve got this steppe planting, plants of this size are perfect. So there’s no post-flowering malaise of the foliage, as is usually the case with these earlyish flowering perennials?

    1. I’ve just realised I didn’t use the term ground cover in this write up at all, but P. bellus fits the bill. It’s strange but I’ve never thought of it as such until just now. When does a plant become a ground cover?

      I replanted my very small front garden this winter and suffered the same problem trying to source other very low-growing perennials – the list is short. I’m trialling an armeria this year of a similar stature, mainly because it was one of the few new additions I was able to get readily in any quantity.

      P. bellus was one of the few plants I kept after the rip out, it’s high value and low in any requirement category. And yes, the foliage remains unfazed by the summer onslaught of heat, no backwards steps at all – I’m yet to see the foliage wilt in the heat let alone suffer sunburn or windburn.

      Its only negative, I guess, is it’s so small that it’s a high danger of getting swamped by taller plants.

  3. This is hilarious James! I have gone through exactly the same arc with three ‘Centaureas’ — fussily planted and initially regretted. But they just keep getting better. I am wondering if they set viable seed?

  4. Well I gotta have it now!

Leave a Comment

More Blog Posts

A Sigh of Horticultural Happiness

Just back from the USA, and lingering in a state of garden bliss. In no other two- week period of my life have I accessed such a broad spectrum of garden aspiration and achievement (except, perhaps, r ...

The Side-benefits of Jet-lag

Seems like all you have to do to see the outrageously wonderful Michelangelo-designed square on Capitoline Hill in Rome entirely on your own is to get there at 5:30 am. Its intimacy and grandeur in pe ...

The hidden power of the five-foot backless bed

Most of what I do professionally is biggish to big.  I’ll be ordering perennials, for instance, with 150 or this and 200 of that, totaling in the thousands.   I love using plants in vast, repeati ...