Baby’s Breath (Gypsophila)
Baby’s Breath is a staple of the floral industry. Florists use copious amounts of Baby’s Breath year round in fancy bridal bouquets, elegant corsages, fresh and dried flower arrangements, and in casual bunches of flowers. It is what is called “filler” for more important flowers to display better. This is being rather disrespectful of this most important little plant, but gardeners know better than to relegate it only to the professionals. Baby’s Breath may not be as bold as your average stargazer lily, florist Mum or long-stemmed rose but without this plant showy blossoms seem quite naked and not nearly as attractive to the eye. With this in mind let us take a closer look at the wonderful little plant that is Baby’s Breath and perhaps we can learn to appreciate it on its own merits.
Gypsophila is the botanical name for the overlooked Baby’s Breath. This is a relatively large collection of about one hundred annual and perennial plants ranging from 6 inches tall to 4 feet high, some of them sprawling on the ground and others upright growing. As the name implies, if you know your botanical terms, (Gypsophila means “lover of chalk”) it prefers to grow in a soil neutral to slightly alkaline and rich in calcium or gypsum. This native to North Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia since being introduced to the Americas has become slightly invasive in regions with poor, sandy, dry soil.
Though rarely thought of as a garden plant, Baby’s Breath would be a welcome addition to any sunny landscape design. One thing all Gypsophila have in common is the airy feel they give a perennial border, a rock garden, trailing over a retaining wall or when planted between paving slabs. This plant is quite versatile. It works especially well in the cutting garden where it can be used in home-grown fresh flower arrangements to give them a professional touch. Gypsophila is also a dream as a dried flower and keeps for years.
G. elegans is the Baby’s Breath most often found in seed form in catalogs and garden centers. It is a very easily grown annual but short living. After 5-6 weeks the plant dies. For continuous blooming through the season sowing seeds every 3-4 weeks is recommended. G. elegans has an upright growth getting 1-1 1/ 2 feet tall. Its leaves are 3 inches long, lance shaped and fleshy. The flowers are single form, one half inch across and abundant. Most often the blossoms are white but it also comes in rosy and pink varieties.
G. paniculata, the classic Baby’s Breath, is a 3 foot tall perennial and quite hardy, to USDA zone 3. The pointy leaves are 2-4 inches long and the single flowers though profuse are positively minuscule, only one sixteenth of an inch across. Bristol Fairy is a popular cultivar which gets to 4 feet high with double blossoms one quarter of an inch wide. The Perfecta cultivar, the favorite of florists, has slightly bigger flowers. This one is easily propagated by rooting cuttings or root divisions. It is excellent for a perennial border.
G. repens, also very hardy, is a 6-9 inch high, creeping, Alpine native which makes it perfect for the rock garden or spilling over a retaining wall. Its stems trail 1 ½ feet long. The 1 inch long leaves have a bluish-grey-green hue. Alba is predictably a snowy white flowering variety. For a different look to the rock garden try the cultivar Dubia. Its purple stems show nicely against the clusters of tiny pink flowers.
G. cerastioides grows in mats 3 inches high and equally wide, perfect for a ground cover and between paving stones. Though a perennial, this one is not as cold hardy, only to USDA zone 5. It has gray leaves and flower clusters in pale pink or white with pink veining.
As you can see Baby’s Breath is not just fill and fluff. Baby’s Breath in all varieties, is a plant that deserves a prominent place in the garden. Perhaps now you won’t ignore its importance.