Sprinkle and Bloom: What Salt and Filler Flowers Have in Common

Standing in the kitchen as a child, spoon in hand, I was the master of my own breakfast destiny. The recipe for the oatmeal I was making said salt, but I ignored it. After all, who needs salt in what would essentially be a dessert by the time I'd taken advantage of the lack of parental supervision to add a massive spoonful of brown sugar?

The first bite was a huge disappointment – bland and insipid in a way that no amount of sweetener could fix. That was the day I learned that a tiny pinch of something as unassuming as salt could be so critical to a dish. It's much like creating mixed bouquets without filler flowers—without them, something seems to be missing, and the beauty just falls flat.

Self-Service Style Stumbles:  My Filler Epiphany

My epiphany regarding filler flowers occurred much later in life, at the farmers market just a few years ago. We operated a bouquet bar at the time, allowing patrons to craft their own bouquets using the same floral elements we use for our much-loved mixed arrangements. I quickly noticed, though, that most who took the DIY route created bouquets that looked nothing like the ready-made mixed bouquets that the farm team and I had crafted.

When selecting their flowers, customers gravitated towards dahlias and other showy and more prominent blooms, bypassing the likes of yarrow, feverfew, and other filler flowers, as well as the more distinctive additions, like Jewels of Opar or amaranth.  And – barring the eucalyptus aficionados – most of these customers ignored the greenery, too.

Who would have thought that simple filler flowers, like yarrow (left), feverfew (center), and saponaria (right), are so important to creating a beautiful bouquet?

I would see them eyeing their bouquet, tilting it to get different perspectives, and it was apparent they were less than thrilled with the outcome. If I wasn’t busy with another customer, this is the point where I’d politely insert myself and offer assistance. Other times, as they neared the checkout with their creation in hand, I could see them making the mental comparison between their selections and our verdant, garden-style mixed arrangements, which harmoniously integrate all of the floral components – including filler flowers – that underpin the Bouquet Blueprint™ Framework.

It’s not about creating “balance” or some other artificial goal, it’s about making something beautiful. The filler flowers in these two bouquets help do just that, by offering a counterpoint to the larger, structural flowers in the bouquet and generating some space between them.

That’s when the lightbulb went off for me. Without filler flowers, their bouquets lacked depth and contrast. With nothing to balance the dominance of rounded blooms, the DIY bouquets tended to culminate in a monotonous mound, rather than an arrangement that invites your gaze to dance and linger.

Filler flowers provide volume, texture, and a sense of fullness to a bouquet.  They are a critical ingredient when it comes to creating the loose, effortless look associated with garden-inspired design, by providing some separation between – and support of – the denser, showier flowers in the arrangement.

Are filler flowers always required to make a beautiful arrangement?  No. There are always exceptions, of course. The most obvious is an arrangement of a single flower. A monovarietal bouquet, be it of peonies or dahlias, ranunculus or campanula, always possesses inherent beauty. I absolutely love single-variety arrangements. The challenge emerges when attempting to blend just two or three different bloom types. That's when one risks the “polka-dot” effect, which is a far cry from the natural, garden-inspired aesthetic I (and our clientele) adore.

Can we get some love for the “fillers,” please?  Not only are they critical to the execution of a garden-inspired bouquet, they can be stunning all on their own.  Pictured are cherry blossoms (left) and Ammi majus -- also known as false Queen Anne's lace (right).

Blossom Battles: The Quest for Growing Season-Long Fillers

Most of the filler flowers we grow are easy to cultivate. Many grow from seed, though there are a few, key shrubs that I wouldn’t want to do without. The challenge with filler flowers is in producing them throughout the growing season. Early spring, for example, can provide a dearth of filler flowers, because the tulip fields start exploding with flowers, and the tunnels start producing ranunculus, anemones and Iceland poppies well before the saponaria or bupleurum or other early spring fillers yield any blooms.

Cherry blossoms provide one potential source of very early spring filler flowers – especially if cut early and forced in a warm greenhouse (or indoors), but their season is fleeting. Greenhouse-grown stock is another early bloomer. If sown in proper intervals, it can be available all spring long. But not everyone has a greenhouse, which is needed to get the earliest blooms, and getting the timing right when successioning them is tricky -- I’m still working on it!  Multi-headed daffodils are another early-season filler flower option.

Stock is so beautiful (and that fragrance!) that you might question whether it’s really a filler flower. But it fills all the criteria of a filler flower and, besides, who says filler flowers can’t be beautiful??  Stock growing in crates in the greenhouse (left, and center) and a harvested handful of the 'Katz' variety (right).

In late spring and early summer, the opposite challenge exists.  That’s when – at least in our climate – a multitude of filler flowers are blooming, and the challenge becomes finding ways to use all of them.  Bupleurum tends to self-seed all over our farm so reliably that we don’t even bother to start seeds of it anymore.  The feverfew also starts kicking in. First come the ones we grow in our caterpillar tunnels, then the ones we have let perennialize, and finally, the ones from seeds we started just this year and planted in an open (non-tunneled) row. The Orlaya is usually still producing at this time, too.

Then the perennial fillers start hitting their stride.  The mockorange becomes abundant, just in time for Mother’s Day arrangements.  Yarrow starts soon after.  Then, a flower that you might not consider a filler – hydrangea – comes into play. A great example of a filler flower that works beautifully in single-variety bouquets, hydrangeas also make an excellent filler flower.  The inflorescences (the groups of “petals,” which are actually sepals) create the loose, textural element that is so important to the filler flower role. In addition to the mophead hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla varieties, such as 'Endless Summer'), which bloom in early summer, our 'Limelight' hydrangeas are absolute filler flower workhorses in the warmer months of August and September, and often continue producing blooms well into fall.

A handful of blue hydrangea stems create a simple, but beautiful, kitchen table arrangement (left). Limelight hydrangeas (right) are abundant, growing on bushes that can easily reach 10 feet (three meters) in every dimension.

Then, quickly, the early summer plethora of filler flowers slows to nearly nothing, and late summer and fall can be another challenging time for finding filler. Depending on the climate, Ammi and Dara, which get started during the early summer “filler glut,” may still be producing, especially if planted in succession.  But in our climate, they tend to fade out in the heat. Sedum checks all the boxes for a filler flower, but it’s large stems, narrow range of colors, and rigid structure make it somewhat limited in that role.

Two fall fillers with very different forms. Sedum (left), produces very large flower heads of tightly spaced florets and a rigid form; Ammi and Daucus ('Dara') have a much more airy look and feel.

Our most foolproof solution to the late summer/fall filler shortage is celosia.  The spicata varieties are a natural choice, with their multi-pronged appearance, but when we realized that the cristata types (the “brain” celosia) worked as a filler, it was a game-changer. Like sedum, Celosia cristata are more rigid and dense than traditional fillers, but they easily meet the criteria we ask of filler flowers:  to happily sit low in a bouquet and provide a foundational, textural backdrop to the other flowers in it. And customers absolutely love this uniquely-formed flower, with its folds of furry texture and rich colors.

Cristata celosia is perhaps my favorite fall filler. It comes in a wide range of colors -- from the highly saturated 'Chief' in persimmon (left), to more subtle colors, such as the golden yellow 'Chief' gold celosia in Allie's bridal bouquet (center). It also comes in all shades of pink.

Unlike sedum, the cristata types of celosia come in a wide range of gorgeous colors, from the most beautiful yellow-gold to a deep, almost black shade of burgundy – and all the pinks, reds, and oranges in between. Using these celosia as a filler keeps all the color options open, with the possible exception of a white bouquet (that’s when those 'Limelight' hydrangea come in handy), or when blues are required. 

Speaking of blues, while sometimes our hydrangea start re-blooming again in fall, my favorite blue filler, by far, is Tweedia (Oxypetalum coeruleum). It’s not the easiest seed to germinate, the plants never get very tall for us, and its stems “bleed” a sap that can be highly irritating to skin (always wear gloves when handling it). But that soft blue color and those star-shaped flowers make me forgive all its faults. (In spring, Chinese-Forget-Me-Nots (Cynoglossum amabile) are a beautiful (though darker than Tweedia), blue filler flower.

Tweedia isn't the easiest filler to grow, at least here in Zone 7b, and it has several other drawbacks (see text), but I can't resist trying to grow at least a little of it (left).  For Alex’s October wedding (right) I had a very limited amount of Tweedia and so used it almost exclusively in the bridal bouquet, where all the most special flowers get placed. Tucked in low, which is the typical position in a bouquet for any filler flower, it served as a complement to the mounds of dahlias and echoed the color of the pale blue spikes of delphinium.

In Summary: Every Bouquet Needs a Dash of Filler

A bouquet without fillers resembles my unsalted oatmeal: flat, lackluster, and just a little bit “off.” So, here's to the fillers, the unsung heroes of every mixed bouquet. They may rarely take center stage – just as a plate of salt alone is highly unappealing as a snack  – but their absence is palpably felt.

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