It's time to read and vote for your favorite article in the 2013 Write-Off Contest! The four finalist's articles are featured in the May 13 newsletter and can be found through this link. Hurry! Voting ends May 18.
Baby's-breath are well known to most gardeners for their 'filler' effect in the border or use as a cut-flower, but this diverse genus also contains some very desirable alpine species. This article will discuss the more traditional baby's-breath but also introduce you to some of the less well-known yet exquisite miniature species.
The vast majority of gardeners are familiar with baby's-breath or Gypsophila. It is certainly one of the most popular cut-flowers as ‘fillers' in arrangements, but this genus of about 100 species, has great diversity in size, form and uses in the garden. The name Gypsophila comes from the Greek gypsos (gypsum) and philos (loving), referring to the chalk- or lime-loving nature of most species. In the wild, they are only found in Eurasia, southeast Europe in particular.
In the garden, we grow both large and small alpine species. Among the larger species are G. paniculata, the perennial baby's-breath (zone 4), G. pacifica (zone 4) and G. elegans, the annual baby's-breath. All are popular as fillers in the garden, especially if planted in areas where spring bulbs are left to go dormant. They are also perfect cut-flowers, grown in great profusion for the cut-flower industry. They may even be used as a dried-flower. In the garden, G. elegans can reach 50 cm while the other two can reach twice that height. While providing a loose and airy floral display, they can be devastated by heavy rains. A relatively new introduction is the annual G. muralis. The wild species may reach 90 cm but most named selections are only 20 to 30 cm. The smaller forms are dense and covered in minute flowers all summer. They are excellent fillers for window boxes and hanging baskets.
Above are the popular cut-flower baby's-breath G. paniculata and G. elegans, as well as the bedding species G. muralis.
There are many named forms of G. paniculata and G. elegans, which may have single or double flowers in white or pink shades. Among G. paniculata are the single-flowered ‘Festival Star', ‘Snowflake' and ‘Compacta'; the double-flowered ‘Bristol Fairy', ‘Double Snowflake', ‘Early Snowball', 'Perfecta', ‘Virgo', Festival White' and ‘Happy Festival'; the single pink-flowered ‘Red Sea' and the double pink-flowered ‘Flamingo', ‘Pink Fairy' and ‘Festival Pink'. Among the annual G. elegans cultivars are the white-flowered ‘Covent Garden', ‘Grandiflora Alba', ‘Giant White', ‘White Elephant', ‘Lady Lace', ‘White Monarch' and ‘Snow Fountain' along with the pink-flowered ‘Red Cloud', ‘Rosea' and ‘Carminea'.
Most of the other cultivated Gypsophila species are alpine in nature. The most popular of these is the creeping baby's-breath, G. repens (zone 4). This species has long trailing stems and small but profuse sprays of white or pink flowers in late spring-early summer. The foliage is blue-tinted, adding to the attractiveness of this species. Creeping baby's-breath is ideal when grown draped over a stone or concrete wall. Another attractive alpine is G. petraea (zone 5), a tufted species with clustered flower heads of white to pale pink flowers on 20 cm stems. Superficially, this species looks like sea-thrift, Armeria. Gypsophila fastigiata is a montane, mat-like species with wiry 30 to 45 cm stems and open sprays of white flowers. There is one relatively popular alpine baby's-breath which hails from the Himalayas called G. cerastioides (zone 5). This species has rounded leaves, unusual among this genus where narrow, lance-shaped leaves are the norm. The habit is tufted and the loose sprays of relatively large flowers are held just above the leaves. The flowers are white with pink veins and look similar to those of Cerastium.
Above are the pink and white forms of G. repens
Above are close-ups of G. fastigiata and G. cerastoides
The next two species to be discussed are more challenging and require scree-like conditions to do well. Gypsophila tenuifolia forms a tight, bright-green dome with wiry stems to 20 cm topped with a loose cluster of relatively large, white flowers. The most unusual species is G. aretioides. This one looks like a domed, green rock and is almost as hard! Extremely dense, this species is grown more for its form than flowers. In fact, flowering is rather scarce with solitary blooms being very small and stemless. These last two species are both rated for zone 5.
On the left are the flowers of G. tenuifolia while in the center and right are shown details of the unusual living rock, G. aretioides.
In regards to general cultivation, all the various species of Gypsophila prefer full sun and well-drained soil which is alkaline in nature. If your soil is more-or-less acidic, then a yearly application of lime would be very beneficial. Whether your garden is more designed for traditional perennials or if rock gardening is your forte, then there is at least one species of baby's-breath that would make a useful addition to your garden.
I would like to thnak the following people for the use of their pictures: begonicrazii (G. muralis), broots (G. elegans), echoes (G. paniculata), jajtiii (G. repens, white form), PanamonCreel (G. cerastoides) and saya (G. fastigiata)
About Todd Boland
I reside in St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada. I work as a research horticulturist at the Memorial University of Newfoundland Botanical Garden. I am one of the founding members of the Newfoundland Wildflower Society and the current chair of the Newfoundland Rock Garden Society. My garden is quite small but I pack it tight! Outdoors I grow mostly alpines, bulbs and ericaceous shrubs. Indoors, my passion is orchids. When not in the garden, I'm out bird watching, a hobby that has gotten me to some lovely parts of the world.