|Official Plant Name||Gypsophila|
|Common Name(s)||Baby’s Breath|
|Plant Type||Perennial / Annual Flower|
|Native Area||Eurasia, Africa, Australia, Pacific Islands|
|Foliage||Deciduous or evergreen|
|Flowers||Large sprays of delicate white flowers|
|When To Sow||March, April|
|Flowering Months||June, July, August|
|When To Prune||August, September|
1 – 1.5M
0.5 – 1M
June – August
Moist but well drained
Neutral / Alkaline
Those pretty billowing clouds in floral arrangements that we call “Baby’s Breath”, which set off roses and tulips, are actually tiny flowers of Gypsophila species and varieties. They are as if made to order for ‘filler:’ though a single flower is of no consequence, a mass of these tiny things are the perfect backdrop for centrepiece flowers, be they in a bouquet or your garden.
Gypsophila are native to almost the entirety of Eurasia; only India and a few countries south-east of it are uninhabited by these plants. These plants are also native to South Africa and Northern Africa, and they have been introduced to the United Kingdom and United States, among other countries.
Out of the about 150 species and several dozen cultivars that comprise Genus Gypsophila, several are well known to anyone who has received a bouquet and to most of those who have sent one. These varieties are informally known as “Baby’s Breath.” Gypsophila paniculata, a few other Gypsophila species, and their hybrids and cultivars make up “Baby’s Breath.” They are actually called ‘Gyp’ in the trade.
Though Baby’s Breath flowers are commonly called a “florist’s filler,” the tiny blossoms are indescribably pretty accompaniments to the carnations, gerberas, and such that form the centrepiece of a bouquet. These dainty flowers are not of much importance individually but when massed, they give the effect of wavy, bubbly, billowing floral clouds out in the garden and even in a static floral arrangement. A good mix of varieties will provide blooms from spring to end-autumn.
Each plant puts up a large number of delicate stalks which carry large panicles of five-petalled flowers. Though all varieties’ flowers are very small, their sizes vary somewhat. The colours are limited to white, off-white, yellowish, and tones of light pink-purple. One of the reasons for Baby’s Breath’s popularity and ubiquity in bouquets and arrangements is that (even) cut flowers are long-lasting. Another reason is that in the garden the flowers draw butterflies and bees. Yet another reason is that these flowers have a scent – or, depending on your tastes and preferences, an odour!
Gypsophila is a herbaceous plant, and species and varieties are annual, evergreen, deciduous, or semi-deciduous (semi-evergreen means the same thing; both terms connote a halfway point, so to speak, between deciduous and evergreen). All species and varieties’ plants have a taproot, which gradually becomes thick and fleshy and can extend to over 3 metres after the plant is established. These plants have alternate, very narrow linear to lanceolate leaves borne on thin wiry stems.
Background and Origins
Gypsophila is a member of the Caryophyllaceae Family. Although the genus is native to nearly the length and breadth of the Eurasian Continent, the majority of species are found in the the Caucasus and Irano-Turanian region. Northern Iran and Kurdistan are considered to be the loci of Gypsophila speciation and diversification. Neighbouring Turkey is especially rich in the number of species.
Grown, and also hybridised and cultivated, for cut flowers, Gypsophila paniculata and some other species have spread to numerous geographic regions including those far distant from its native habitats, such as North America, Argentina, Bolivia, and South Africa.
Baby’s Breath varieties have bushy habits and are usually mound-forming or clump-forming but there are also creeping and mat-forming varieties. Heights and spreads depend upon the particular variety, but they range from 20 centimetres to a full metre in both height and width. Flower size is also somewhat variable.
Underneath we run through Genus Gypsophila’s Baby’s Breath varieties.
G. paniculata, the ‘original,’ has a bushy habit and forms mounds of 60 to 90 centimetres in height and spread. It produces masses of pure white flowers throughout summer and into autumn. The flowers are tiny, measuring only 2 to 5 millimetres across. This species reproduces by seed and it flowers in its third year. A tough species that needs no care, it repels deer and attracts butterflies, which are characteristics inherited by its cultivars. The majority of commercial Baby’s Breath varieties descend from G. paniculata.
G. elegans is an annual and is known as “Showy Baby’s Breath” because its white flowers, often with radial purple streaks or in pink hues, are over twice as big as those of G. paniculata with a diameter of up to 1.5 centimetres. Plants grow from to 25 to 50 centimetres in both height and spread. ‘Covent Garden’ is an attractive and popular cultivar. Though its flowering season is relatively short, lasting for only part of the summer, this variety produces figurative clouds of gorgeous white blooms that are comparatively big.
G. repens is a mat-forming creeper that is ideal for groundcover and is wonderfully effective in rock gardens. It reaches a height of only 12 to 15 centimetres but spreads to about 60. The tiny flowers bring a couple of bonuses; first, at up to one centimetre they are bigger than ‘standard,’ and, second, sometimes they have a pink to lilac tone. It is one of only two Gypsophila varieties to have received the RHS’s Award of Garden Merit. G. repens ’Rosa Schoenheit’ is a noteworthy German cultivar with large, open, pink blooms.
G. Cerastioides aka ‘Mouse-eared gypsophila’ aka ‘Chickweed Baby’s Breath’ is a semi-evergreen dwarf that is native to the Himalayan regions in and around Nepal. It grows to only 5 centimetres and spreads to 15, and has a ‘creeping habit,’ to coin a phrase, and forms tight clumps. Of particular interest are the lovely flowers that are relatively large and have distinct pink-purple radial streaks. It blooms throughout summer.
G. ‘Rosenschleier’ or G. ‘Rosy Veil’ is a semi-evergreen that grows up to 30 centimetres tall and 45 wide, and has a mounding habit. Both panicles and flowers are bigger than those of G. paniculata with the double form flowers being one centimetre wide. Another point of difference is that it is one of the Baby’s Breath varieties whose flowers have a pinkish tone, fading to white. It is one of only two Gypsophila varieties to have received the R.H.S.’s Award of Garden Merit.
G. paniculata “Viette’s Dwarf” is very similar to ‘Rosy Veil;’ it too is about 35 centimetres tall and equally wide with a mounding shape, and it also bears panicles of double flowers that have a pinkish hue and fade to white as they mature.
G. paniculata ‘Bristol Fairy’ is a Gypsophila giant; this tall and broad deciduous variety reaches 1 to 1.2 metres and can attain a spread of nearly a metre. It has a tidy, bushy habit with sparse foliage. Its flowers are also big for Baby’s Breath at 1.2 centimetres in width. The plant puts out these double form, pure white blooms for most of the summer.
G. paniculata ‘Perfekta’ is very similar to ‘Bristol Fairy’ in size and habit. The differences are that it is more robust and blooms later than ‘Bristol Fairy;’ also, its flowers are somewhat larger. It is a florist favourite variety that is being supplanted by G. paniculata ‘Mirabella’ which is more resistent to pests and bears snowy white flowers.
G. paniculata ‘Compacta Plena’ has a bushy, mounding habit and grows to about 40 centimetres. Its foliage is also on the sparse side. Flowers are double form, pure white, and 6 to 7 millimetres wide. It is quite a profuse bloomer and puts out flowers for much of the summer.
G. paniculata ‘Flamingo’ is an unusual and special variety because of its flowers. They are big at 1 centimetre, are double form, and are a proper pink. It is a semi-evergreen with a clump-forming bushy habit that reaches 70 to 80 centimetres in height and spread.
G. muralis ‘Gypsy’ is a lesser-known but standout variety for reasons similar to ‘Flamingo’s characteristics. It is an annual and has a low, mounding form as the plant reaches only 20 to 25 centimetres in height but attains a spread of up to twice as much. It blooms profusely and the flowers stand out, being in both semi-double and double form, and a natural and solid tone of pink.
Baby’s Breath is a commercial staple and because it is used as a filler rather than as a floral centrepiece, the floral industry constantly cultivates this plant, not for form, shape, and such, but to maximise bloom density and blooming duration and to minimise cost, besides introducing other desirable characteristics, such as pest resistance and colouration. ‘Millionstar’ and ‘Xlence’ are very good examples of such trade cultivars.
Habitat & Growing Conditions
Habitat & Growing Conditions for Gypsophila species and particularly paniculata may be described as, ‘Anywhere and Everywhere,’ to be concise, if not precise. These plants grow and spread in gardens, fields, woods, roadsides, ditches, sandbanks, pastures – just so long as the soil is not acidic.
In this genus’s geographical locus of greatest concentration and diversity, that is Iran, Turkey, Kurdistan, and the Caucasus region, it grows on the steppes, in woodlands, on hillsides, by rural pathways, and in the poor, calcareous soils that are abundant in that region.
Though Gypsophila grows in all kinds of soils to the extent that it is classified as an invasive species in many geographic regions of the United States and also in other countries, it was thought to have a particular proclivity for gypsum substrates, hence its name Gypsophila or ‘gypsum-loving.’
Perennial Baby’s Breath varieties are hardy to USDA Zones 3 to 9. Whilte annual ones are rated as being hardy to USDA Zones 2 to 10, the lower bound is a bit of a stretch.
When and Where to Plant
To be honest, Baby’s Breath is not a great plant for beds or containers though it is superlative for everything else. That said, if you are a floral arranger or do ikebana, then – of course – you may very well want to grow Baby’s Breath in a bed or two in your garden.
It is ideal for texture and filler in the garden just the same as in floral arrangements, and is also an excellent choice for filling in gaps. Not only is this ‘filler’ decorative, it somehow heightens the attractiveness of the specimens or centrepieces it surrounds or forms a backdrop to.
The creeping varieties make for lovely groundcover, and both creeping and dwarf varieties are terrific in rock gardens.
Baby’s Breath, along with small wildflowers, planted together will produce a charming, cottage garden effect.
One could say that Baby’s Breath is the gardener and florist’s equivalent of the textured paper and the burnisher pencil of the illustrator.
Feeding, Care & Growing Tips
Sow Baby’s Breath seeds, of either perennial or annual types, in early spring in a sunny spot. Full sun is best but partial shade will do. Delicate varieties like ‘Flamingo’ should be sheltered.
These plants should be well spaced; a good rule of thumb is to space them apart by about 90 percent of the variety’s rated ultimate spread. Once a plant is established it should not be transplanted or otherwise disturbed because of the thick and long taproot.
This plant does not take well to rich soils, fertilization, or watering; where Baby’s Breath is concerned, ‘Less is more.’ Plant them in chalky, sandy, or gravelly soil that is, preferably, Slightly Alkaline (but not at all on the acidic side). Water it infrequently and fertilize sparingly only if necessary. Soil should be well drained. Baby’s Breath is especially intolerant of damp soil in winter.
Most varieties will produce a second bloom if the plant is conservatively cut back after the first flowering.
Baby’s Breath is mildly poisonous, to humans as well as to their best friends of both the feline and canine variety. The entire plant when dry can cause allergic reactions. These include dermatitis, hay fever, and eye irritation. The symptoms are usually mild and not serious but it would be wise to take treatment for any such reactions.
The flowers are poisonous, dry or not. They contain gyposenin which is a type of saponin. When processed for medicinal use the flowers are beneficial, but ingested in raw form they disturb the gastro-intestinal tract. They can cause diarrhoea, nausea, and vomiting. The problem is almost always temporary but an affected pet should be taken to the vet to be on the safe side.
Gypsophila paniculata (and also a few other Gypsophila species) though not its cultivars, are formally classified as invasive species in several American states and a few Canadian provinces. They are also informally considered invasive in other American states, Canadian provinces, and Australia. These plants compete with native species and bring about reductions in their populations. Their presence also alter the ecology of the affected region by causing shifts in the respective populations of dependent animal and insect species.
Common Diseases & Problems
The plant is generally pest free. Occasionally a plant may be affected by stem rot or botrytis aka grey mould.
Stem rot is usually caused by bacteria. It is hard to treat but you can guard against it by mulching around the stem before the onset of winter.
Botrytis is a fungal disease. Promptly cut off the diseased parts or remove the entire plant if it is badly affected. If ‘plant surgery’ is the route you take, apply Neem Oil on and around the parts of the plant that were cut, and sterilise your secateurs with a 10 percent solution of hydrogen peroxide.
Where to Buy ‘Baby’s Breath’
One might think that Baby’s Breath is not as widely available as popular plants, both perennials and annuals, but one would be wrong. Almost all Baby’s Breath varieties, to a greater or lesser degree, are available as potted plants from nurseries, many of which will have the plants delivered to your doorstep.
Seed packets of some select varieties are also available.
Fun Facts About Gypsophila
• You may see Baby’s Breath – real flowers, not artificial ones – in surprising and unexpected colours, including tasteless and gaudy shades. Though the flowers are real all right, the colours are not, for a growing sub-industry produces dyed or ‘tinted’ Baby’s Breath!
• The plant contains saponins which are mildly poisonous if ingested in raw form, yet these very same compounds, when processed and taken in the right dose, are beneficial.
• The taproot contains saponins which are surfactants and produce foam when mixed in water. No wonder, then, that the taproot used to be used as a soap, and is still used in the manufacture of detergents.
• The same chemical compound is also useful for astonishingly diverse uses, such as producing photographic film, making Persian ‘halwa,’ and manufacturing fire extinguishing foams.
• The very same plant whose flowers are called “Baby’s Breath” and are a mainstay in bouquets is classified in California and Washington as a ’noxious weed’! Will someone please tell the happy bride that the lovely bouquet she is holding includes a few ‘noxious weeds’?
Kersie learnt the basics of gardening as a toddler, courtesy of his grandfather. In his youth he was an active gardener with a preference for flowering plants. He is a professional and vocational writer and his freelance projects have spanned various kinds of writing.