Baby’s breath (Gypsophila) is one of the most popular “fillers” for cut-flower arrangements. After you tell the florist that you would like a dozen roses, or six lilies, or any mixed bouquet, they will generally set off the blossoms that you actually asked for with sprays of small white flowers and greenery. Quite often those small white flowers will be baby’s breath.
Although the genus is native to the Old World (Europe, Asia and North Africa), Gypsophila paniculata has been introduced to the United States and is found throughout the eastern half of the country, sometimes becoming invasive. Planting Gypsophila may be prohibited in some areas because of its invasive tendencies, so it would be best inquire with the Soil Conservation Service or the state environmental agency before adding it to your garden.
The genus name means “chalk lover,” and the plant prefers mildly basic, calcium-rich soils. Gypsum is calcium sulfate (CaSO4 • 2H2O), but a more common calcium-rich mineral is calcite (CaCO3), the principal mineral of limestones. Chalk is a form of limestone, generally composed of microscopic fossils.
The genus is a member of the family Caryophyllaceae, which also includes the pinks and the carnations. There are both perennial and annual species. “Common gypsophila” (G. paniculata) is a perennial species native to eastern Europe, but is commercially grown in the United Kingdom, Israel, and the Netherlands. It grows to be 24 to 36 inches in height and the flowers are single (five petals). (Several species and many cultivars have doubled petals.)
G. muralis, an annual, is one of the European species that has been naturalized to the United States. Another annual, G. elegans (showy baby’s breath), is often included in “wild flower” seed mixtures and has consequently been widely introduced across North America.
Gypsophila prefers full sun and light, well-drained soils. It can be planted as seed in the fall in (U.S.D.A. Plant Hardiness) Zones 7 and 8, but in colder areas it should be sown in the spring. If seedlings are planted, they can be put in the ground about a month before the last frost. They should be planted about eight inches apart; baby’s breath flowers better when it is a bit crowded.
Once they are established they need little care. When the flowers are removed for use in arrangements, the plant (especially the annual species), will blossom with renewed vigor. The plants don’t even need to be deadheaded. All varieties, both perennial and annual, die back to the ground after the frost hits them. The perennials will come back from their roots, while the annuals will have seeded themselves for the next year.
Baby’s breath is also a good dried plant. Whether you take it from your own garden or preserve the “filler” from a florist’s arrangement, simply hang it upside down in a warm, dry place. Once dried, the flower and leaves of baby’s breath look almost as vital as when they were fresh.
Gypsophila has been cultivated since 1759 in England, so its use by florists has a long pedigree. In the 1990s it began to fall out of fashion as a filler, but it has recently staged a surprising revival. It has become trendy among “celebrity florists” and other trendsetters to create bouquets that consist of baby’s breath, a little foliage, and nothing else.
Although “baby’s breath” is the most widespread common name for Gypsophila (and usually refers to G. paniculata), florists have many other pet names for the plant, include “gyp,” “gypsy,” “million star,” and “diamond spray.” These names tend to vary regionally. In the UK the wild plant is referred to as “soap wort,” not to be confused with a Saponaria species of southern Europe, which go by the same common name.