Flowers for summer bouquets I

By Glennis Byron
July 2, 2023
Filed in Flowers
9 minutes

It’s mid-summer and I’m spending a lot of time doing what I love the most: not planting and not weeding and deadheading, though those tasks continue, but making bouquets. So I thought it might be a good moment to do a few posts on some of the flowers I most like using in bouquets. My choices are very much influenced, inevitably, by my preferred style, which is what is sometimes called an English country garden bouquet: seasonal flowers, quite a lot of colours, a feeling of abundance, and a loose and natural feeling.

I recently made an extra large bouquet to take to a garden party which I hope suggests this idea of the English country garden style. (I’m not calling it an arrangement because it was a hand-tied bouquet that I then placed in a container, which is quite different from designing an arrangement in a vase.) I wanted to try and capture the lushness of early summer and to make the bouquet look good – but different – all around, something I often find quite difficult with smaller bouquets.

When I’d finished and taken a few photos of the flowers I wondered if the view where the peonies weren’t really visible was perhaps better. Certainly the peonies contribute immensely to creating a sense of lushness, but do they demand too much attention and take away from the overall effect? In the end, I’m not sure.

Perhaps that just reflects my slight prejudice against the showstoppers, what are called ‘focal flowers’, the larger, showier flowers like peonies and roses and dahlias. Most advice on creating bouquets suggests building around these attention-grabbing flowers.

The focal flower here is the rose ‘Soul Sister Sunbelt’, very pretty but no scent at all to my nose, so I’m sorry I bought it.

My interest is far more in what are usually called ‘fillers’ and ‘accents’, and I’m quite happy to do without focal flowers most of the time. ‘Filler’ is of course a dreadful way to describe flowers and makes them sound like whatever it is cheap hamburger chains add to their meat to bulk it out. ‘Supporting’ flower is marginally better, but still downplays the importance of these flowers and places the focus too much on the big hitters, flowers which often have a much shorter vase life than the beauties that supposedly ‘support’ them.

An accent flower, for me, is something that floats above the other flowers and which adds movement. I like to add these to a hand-tied bouquet from the top once it is nearly complete. Pushing the stems down into the bouquet at the end makes it easier to ensure that the flowers are placed exactly where you want them and at the height you want them to be. Just make sure you are holding the bouquet loosely when you push the stems down into it, and be very gentle! Once you see the stem starting to emerge below your hand you can take that stem and gradually pull it down until the flower is at the height required.

And so, on to some of the flowers, the ‘fillers’ and ‘accents’, I most like to use in bouquets.

Dianthus superbus and D. plumarius

I love most Dianthus but for bouquets my favourite has to be Dianthus superbus or D. plumarius. In terms of fragrance and pure funky whispiness, the species can’t be beat. While I sometimes use sweet peas to add fragrance, the sweet peas with the very best scent rarely have stems long enough to use in a bouquet – two notable exceptions in my experience are the exquisite creamy white ‘Cathy’ and her soulmate, the handsome blue ‘Heathcliff’. Anyway, the scent of a sweet pea is a very fleeting pleasure: these species dianthus have a strong fragrance that lasts. (I love it, but I’ve had someone comment it smells like their granny’s Yardley talc…. so that’s a no, I assume…) It can literally perfume the whole garden. No surprise that its name, from the Greek, means ‘flower of the gods’. The one shown here comes from a mix called ‘Rainbow Loveliness’ and is a great match with Campanula glomerata ‘Caroline’. Christopher Lloyd said ‘Rainbow Loveliness’ was one he would never want to be without, and that makes it a definite yes for me.

Sowing and growing: Surface sow inside in late winter: seeds need light to germinate. I also put them under a humidity dome. Normal house temperature is fine, but you can put them on a heat mat if you wish. Grow them on cooler. I have a greenhouse kept just frost-free, and I gradually move them out there in late winter / early spring. Plant out in a sunny spot.

Harvesting: No special treatment is needed, but do keep cutting, because if they start going to seed they will stop flowering. It’s difficult to keep on top of it because they put out so many flowers. If they do start going to seed, cut the plant right back and it should return and flower again. Buds will keep opening, giving a vase life of about ten days for a spray of these flowers.

If you read this blog regularly, you’ll know that my scorn for Dianthus caryophyllus, the humble carnation, even exceeds my disdain for the gladioli. I may be eating my words. This year, I’ve been persuaded to try some heirloom Chabaud carnations from the 1870s, which I was told would be beautifully sweet and spicy with the typical clove scent and quite unlike the charmless supermarket offerings. We’ll see. Some buds are just about to bloom so I’ll let you know in the next post.

Linaria maroccana

I can’t believe I haven’t grown Linaria until this year. It is just such a pretty little thing to add to a bouquet. I don’t mean Linaria purpurea, which grows like a weed, but the Moroccan toadflax, Linaria maroccana. They look like tiny snapdragons and will apparently grow nearly anywhere, from zone 4 to zone 11. I got a variety called ‘Northern Lights’: tall enough for cutting and a great mixture with something to suit any colour scheme. Despite its apparent fragility, this is a tough little plant. I thought I’d made a mistake by sprinkling some seed in a flower bed where there is an overhead sprinkler system, but they are unaffected by the frequent drenching.

Sowing and growing: this is the easiest plant I’ve ever grown. Just sprinkle, cover very lightly with soil and keep moist. You can start some inside and transplant after the last frost, or just direct sow after the last frost and you’ll have germination in no time. I’ve been told that with luck it may self-seed.

Harvesting: The most amazing thing about this flower is how long it lasts, both in the ground and in the vase. I had a big pot full initially that I used in bouquets with ranunculus when it first started flowering in early spring. Those plants are still going strong, still pushing out new flowers. So a small pot will last for ages as long as you keep harvesting. And if you pick the stems when there’s just a few buds open, they last a good two weeks in the vase.

Extra: This is a perfect airy accent flower, and looks lovely floating a little above the rest of the bouquet.

Phlox drummondii

Annual phlox is another old-fashioned plant I wouldn’t be without in bouquets. ‘Cherry Caramel’, which I’ve written about here – remains a favourite, and this year I’ve also liked ‘Blushing Bride’. While ‘Cherry Caramel’ has a vintage look, ‘Blushing Bride’ is prettiness encapsulated. Other beauties include ‘Whipped Cream’ (white) and ‘Isabellina’ (very pale buff yellow). I’ve rather gone off ‘Crème Brûlée’, which increasingly I think looks plain murky. For cutting, avoid the compact phlox (like the gorgeous ‘Moody Blues’ and ‘Lavender Beauty’ which are absolutely stunning for the garden and in containers, but no use for bouquets).

Sowing and growing: annual phlox needs warmth and complete darkness to germinate. I cover mine with an upside down seed tray and a humidity dome and put in a warm dark place. I sow at the beginning of February and use cells, as they don’t like root disturbance. Don’t pinch them out. If you let them grow one long stem, you’ll find long side shoots come from these and by early summer you’ll be able to cut the long stems you want for bouquets.

Harvesting: to get a good stem length, even with these offshoots, you’ll have to strip off quite a few more side shoots from that stem. Grit your teeth and do it, even if it means stripping off some buds. This is another of those flowers that is reinvigorated by cutting.

Extra: for Canadian readers, especially those tired of the poor quality from some of the big Canadian seed companies, one of the best places to get seed for cut flowers is from a flower farmer. Whistling Prairie Flowers had a particularly good selection of phlox seeds for 2023. I bought all those mentioned here from them, great seeds, almost perfect germination. They also had two others I hope to try this coming year, the old favourite ‘Phlox of Sheep’ (yes, I know, groan), in shades of pink, coral, apricot, and ‘Leopoldii’, a mix of coral and peach and watermelon.


Nigella is useful for bouquets at all stages, from bud to flower to seedhead

Unlike most of the flowers mentioned here, Nigella isn’t really a cut-and-come again flower, but it certainly is a multi-tasking one. If you miss cutting some of the flowers, the seed heads are just as interesting, and excellent for adding texture, and the ferny foliage is lovely too. It’s one of those nostalgic flowers that many remember as ‘Love in the mist’ and comes in many shades of blue, and in white – perhaps my favourite – and some more unusual colours too. Next year I plan to try a variety called ‘Transformer’. Dodgy one for me, as I don’t do much yellow, but I love the form and think they’ll make an excellent accent flower to bob around above the bouquet. I’d also sowed the very different Nigella bucharica ‘Blue Stars’ that I bought from Chiltern Seeds but the neigbourhood raccoon had a right old go at that bed, and I don’t think any of the seedlings survived.

Sowing and growing: you can direct sow in the autumn in zone 6 and higher, or direct sow in spring. Only cover the seed very lightly as light is needed for germination. Different varieties flower at different times, but none will make it through a whole season. It’s a good idea to make three or four sowings in succession to keep it going.

Harvesting: Wait until the flower buds are fully coloured before cutting. You can also use the pods for texture and they dry well.

Next time: Cosmos, Didiscus, Larkspur, and Schizanthus

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  • Elizabeth Fraser Jackson

    Thanks so much for your excellent blog. Your parents would be so proud!

    Elizabeth Fraser Jackson
    Victoria, BC

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