Blue Star of the Wildflower Meadow
The deep blue cornflower (Centaurea cyanus) used to grow prolifically across Britain’s wildflower meadows where it stood in stark contrast to that other well-known wildflower, the red Poppy. Its specific name, cyanus, literally means ‘dark blue’ in Greek. Cornflowers, along with many other meadow herbs, have been the victim of pesticide use, destruction of field margins, the loss of certain crops in which it was a seed ‘contaminant’ (e.g. rye) and the cleaning of agricultural seed. These beautiful blue wildflowers are unfortunately no longer a common sight. The UK Biodiversity Action Plan has therefore listed cornflower as a priority species for action.
Cornflowers have played a long role in the wildflower meadows of Britain, but we don’t have the monopoly on this dark blue little flower. Our neighbours throughout Europe also value this beautiful blue herb. The cornflower is the national flower of Estonia, one of the national flowers of Germany, the official flower of the Swedish province of Östergötland and the symbol of political parties in Swedish, Finland and Estonia associated with social liberalism. However, the use of cornflower dates back even further to the ancient Greeks and Egyptians. The Egyptians believed that cornflower had the power to resurrect the dead – wreaths of cornflowers were found near to the tomb of Tutankhamun.
Twinkling Cornflower Eyes
There is a long history of herbal use associated with cornflowers. It has been used to treat various eye ailments for centuries and was traditionally used to make ‘break spectacles water’ which Household Books in the 17th Century recommended for alleviating the need to wear glasses (Hatfield’s Herbal, 2007). Other historical herbalists such as Gerard and Culpeper recommmended cornflower as a wound healer and for a variety of eye-related illnesses. It was historically also used to produce a blue ink or dye.
Cornflowers contain many different compounds. However, it’s the anthocyanins in cornflower, a particular type of flavonoid or naturally occurring plant pigment that contain antioxidant properties, which are thought to lead to its healing effects (Chiru, 2009). Anthocyanins are thought to display an array of beneficial actions on human health and well-being. Due to our increasing understanding and awareness of the potential beneficial human health effects, research on anthocyanins has recently intensified.
Anthocyanins form the colours of many fruits and vegetables and are probably the most widespread food colours occurring as red colours in fruit juices, wines and jams. These pigments have been identified in edible plant materials as diverse as apple, berries (blackcurrant, boysenberry, blueberry, bilberry, strawberry, blackberry, raspberry, cranberry, elderberry, lingonberry, chokeberry etc.), black carrot, cabbage, cherry, grape, radish, red onions and sweet potato, to mention only a few of the vast array known. Of all the beneficial functions of anthocyanins, the effect on vision was one of the first reported properties. British Royal Air Force aviators in World War II ate bilberry jam to improve their night vision. Many studies focusing on vision improvement have since been undertaken and suggest that anthocyanins can help improve vision function (Ghosh & Konishi, 2007).
The anthocyanins in cornflowers have strong anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties so using cornflowers will help with tired, itchy and puffy eyes. Other eye-related benefits can include reducing the effects of pollution or soothing the eyes after long hours at the computer. Skin benefits come from cornflower’s cooling and toning properties and for that reason this lovely herb is often used in cosmetics to firm mature and crepey skin (Catty, 2001). Daily cornflower compresses on the eyes are thought to visibly diminish fine lines and tone the skin around the eyes. So next time you need to choose a plant for your garden, consider the stunning blue cornflower and get those eyes twinkling!
References & Further Reading
Catty, S. 2001. Hydrosols: The Next Aromatherapy
Chiru, T. 2009. Phytochemical Study of Centaurea cyanus L. Scientific Papers, USAMV Bucharest, Series A, Vol. LII, 2009, ISSN 1222-5339
Ghosh, D. & Konishi, T. 2007. Anthocyanins and anthocyanin-rich extracts: role in diabetes and eye function. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr 2007;16 (2):200-208
Hatfield, G. 2007. Hatfield’s Herbal: The Curious Stories of Britain’s Wild Plants