Most years I grow a few cornflowers (Centaurea cyanus) but this year I decided to grow its more exotic cousin, sweet sultan (Amberboa moschata). This is like a more refined but bigger cornflower and is native to Turkey and Iran and I can only guess that this is why it has ‘sultan’ in the name: perhaps the open blooms and developing buds were thought to resemble a head sporting a turban.
The ‘sweet’ part refers to the fact that the flowers are fragrant. The perfume is described in various ways but I have to say that it is not that strong, when I sniff. It is a ridiculous thing to say but I think it smells of talcum powder – ridiculous because talc has no smell – but perhaps it is ‘baby’ powder. It is certainly pleasant but not overpowering.
This plant is usually sold as a mix although the yellow form is often sold separately as ‘Dairy Maid’. The flowers are typically Asteraceae with a head of florets surrounded by overlapping bracts. This makes the buds resemble native knapweeds. The first florets poke up through the centre at first and these are female and much more showy than the inner, smaller florets.
One reason for growing this annual is that it is supposed to be a magnet for butterflies but these colourful insects have been rather scarce so far this summer and I have not seen any on the flowers. It is a rather slender, tall plant. Mine are about 60cm high but they are in a very well drained bed and rather crowded. The leaves are deeply divided and greyish green. The blooms are quite large, 6-7cm across and the centre florets are paler than the outer to give a misty, ‘fluffy’ look. They are supposed to make good cut flowers, lasting well in water. The colour range is white, yellow and pink and mauve.
I sowed these in cell trays, germinated them in mild heat and then planted them out in May but it is a hardy annual and can be sown in situ in spring.