Icon - Arrow LeftAn icon we use to indicate a rightwards action. Icon - Arrow RightAn icon we use to indicate a leftwards action. Icon - External LinkAn icon we use to indicate a button link is external. Icon - MessageThe icon we use to represent an email action. Icon - Down ChevronUsed to indicate a dropdown. Icon - CloseUsed to indicate a close action. Icon - Dropdown ArrowUsed to indicate a dropdown. Icon - Location PinUsed to showcase a location on a map. Icon - Zoom OutUsed to indicate a zoom out action on a map. Icon - Zoom InUsed to indicate a zoom in action on a map. Icon - SearchUsed to indicate a search action. Icon - EmailUsed to indicate an emai action. Icon - FacebookFacebooks brand mark for use in social sharing icons. flipboard Icon - InstagramInstagrams brand mark for use in social sharing icons. Icon - PinterestPinterests brand mark for use in social sharing icons. Icon - TwitterTwitters brand mark for use in social sharing icons. Icon - Check MarkA check mark for checkbox buttons.
You are reading

Rethinking Double Flowers: Back in Love with ‘Flower Show’ Plants

Search

Rethinking Double Flowers: Back in Love with ‘Flower Show’ Plants

March 23, 2018

When a carnation was first crossed with a Sweet William in 1717, the man responsible (Thomas Fairchild) lived in dread of divine retribution; he was messing with the natural order of things. Three hundred years later, fear of the unnatural has been replaced by snobbery; double flowers are too showy, too vulgar, too flowery.

Here is something to reflect on: many flowers for which we harbor a nostalgic affection are double. Lilac, night-scented stock, most roses. Their scent is a reminder of the perfect summers of youth; we loved them before we realized that we didn’t love double flowers. A new book, Double Flowers: The Remarkable Story of Extra-Petalled Blooms, begun by writer Nicola Ferguson before her death in 2007 and completed by the writer and photographer Charles Quest-Ritson, argues in their favor.

Roses

An old-fashioned rose by the gate at Kelmarsh Hall & Gardens, in Northamptonshire, England. Photograph by Jim Powell.
Above: An old-fashioned rose by the gate at Kelmarsh Hall & Gardens, in Northamptonshire, England. Photograph by Jim Powell.

Extra-petalled blooms hold their own against a wall, a busy border, or on a street tree, contrasting with single, more dainty flowers, which can become lost. In the case of roses, extra floriferous types are more often grown than singles because their increased surface area creates a more intense experience in color and scent. The cells that exude fragrance are often held in the petals.

Pelargoniums

Pelaragoniums. Double flowers appear to have more intense colors, according to Nicola Ferguson, author of Double Flowers. Photograph by Matthew Williams.
Above: Pelaragoniums. Double flowers appear to have more intense colors, according to Nicola Ferguson, author of Double Flowers. Photograph by Matthew Williams.

What do bees and other pollinators make of double flowers? It can be confusing: the amount of pollen and nectar produced is variable, just like the number of petals. On some doubles, the pollen-carrying stamens are disguised as petals, in which case they still contain pollen. It is less usual for double flowers to be completely sterile. Unfortunately, pollinators can’t tell in advance so they are more likely to go elsewhere, and pollination can be a problem. In a commercial apple orchard, single blossom varieties are grown, for this reason. In a garden, the agenda is more relaxed for ornamental crab apples, cherries, and the extravagantly magenta hawthorn (Crataegus laevigatica ‘Rosea Flore Pleno’).

Camellias

Camellia growing at Caerhays Castle, in Cornwall. Photograph by Kendra Wilson.
Above: Camellia growing at Caerhays Castle, in Cornwall. Photograph by Kendra Wilson.

An “imbrigated” flower such as double camellia has geometric, precisely arranged petals. The absence of a visible eye at the center of a flower gives it a more formal status in an arrangement. According to the late author Nicola Ferguson, extra-petalled flowers with visible eyes (such as zinnias and bachelor’s buttons Ranunculus aconitifolius ‘Flore Pleno’) are informal, with an “uncomplicated charm.”

Peonies

Paeonia lactiflora &#8
Above: Paeonia lactiflora ‘Sarah Bernhardt’. Photograph by Jim Powell.

Flowers that are already round and many-petalled, such as ranunculus, rose, and peony, are the most likely to be successfully developed into doubles. With peonies and roses, the thinking is: double the double. Heavy-headed peonies are best cut and displayed with other peonies, “crammed” together in a vase with stems that are not particularly long.

Columbines

Aquilegia vulgaris var. stellata &#8
Above: Aquilegia vulgaris var. stellata ‘Nora Barlow’. Photograph by Charles Quest-Ritson.

Double columbines have the advantage of coming into flower a few weeks earlier than singles, their petals lasting longer. Another thing: They have plenty of nectar, and set just as many seeds as single strains to prove it. Furthermore, Columbines go with everything, from a traditional border featuring alliums, early-flowering roses, and iris, to prairie planting. Piet Oudolf is quoted in Double Flowers as saying that there is nothing wild about the double columbine, “but it would still look good in the wildest garden.”

Florist&#8
Above: Florist’s buckets, Chatsworth. Photograph by Jim Powell.

A flower decorator’s skills are tested with their handling of double flowers; the sheer flower power can show singles to a disadvantage. Dahlias, chrysanthemums, delphiniums, nigella, cornflowers, garden pinks, and thalictrum tend toward double forms. A mix of formal doubles with informal doubles requires extra quantities of single blooms, so that they can hold their own.

Double Flowers book cover

Double Flowers by Nicola Ferguson is published by Pimpernel Press this month, £30.

If you’re planning a spring (or summer) flower garden, see growing and design tips in our curated guides to our favorite Perennials 101, including:

Product summary  

Have a Question or Comment About This Post?

Join the conversation

v5.0