Grow it for bright orange fresh or dried flowers
Safflower is an annual, thistle-like flower— yes, the same as the one used for cooking oil—has a hairy texture and a brilliant orange color. It’s good in fresh arrangements and adds a hot orange color to everlasting arrangements and wreaths.
Safflower plants and flowers
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When fresh, flowers are 1-2 in. wide. When dried, the bud closes up a bit and the thin, hair-like petals stick out in a tuft. It’s still an excellent shock of vibrant color otherwise lacking in dried florals. See Special info below for other orange options.
Safflower gets up to 3 ft. tall and is rather prickly. It is a well-branched plant and yields many flowers per plant. The stems can be quite prickly if you don’t have the more thornless variety (see below).
How to grow it
Seeds can be started in cells or pots indoors, or directly seeded into the garden soil after frost danger has past. Germination can take up to 2 weeks. I think it’s better to sow the seed directly into the soil because they have a deep tap root.
Plant in well-draining soil, and water deep and infrequently. In other words, let dry out between watering and water deeply.
How to harvest safflower flowers
Harvest for fresh use any time they are open. When the flower ripens it will turn from yellowish orange to a stronger orange. Right before the color turn is when I like to harvest for drying. If you hang the stems to dry the petals will stick upright. Or I sometimes stick the stems upright in a vase. Before they’re completely dry the petals can be coaxed to stand up. Either way, their color is bright and showy.
Stems are branched so you can harvest whole branches and cut them individually later for crafting.
The best is ‘Zanzibar’, a variety with straighter stems and nearly thornless.
Other than that there are Carthamus tinctorius ‘Orange’ and C. t.’ Yellow’ options for flower growing use. My preference is orange and the yellow is harder to find. The flowers will be orange unless otherwise indicated.
Sources for safflower seeds
Johnny’s Seeds has ‘Zanzibar’
Outside Pride carries orange, yellow, and even white safflower seeds! See Amazon
Seedman.com carries the regular orange safflower https://www.seedman.com/safflower.htm
If you feed your wild birds with seeds with safflower seeds, you might end up with some volunteer plants.
The best other orange dried flowers are orange celosias, both plume and crested. The next best other one worth growing for dried orange is orange gomphrena, but it’s not nearly as intense as the other oranges, and Chinese lanterns, strong and big orange, but a pest plant that’s really not worth growing (in my opinion). Well, there’s one more. Orange African marigolds can be dried and are richly colored, but they fade if they’re exposed to too much light.
The regular orange safflower is the one that’s used for oil. Its petals are also used as a substitute for saffron for culinary use. There’s a problem with this, though, it’s cheating. While it can give the dish the characteristic color saffron gives, it does not give the flavor!
Dried safflower petals are often used to water down saffron packages to reduce the price. So if you find saffron going for much less than the other packages, this is most likely why.
If you like saffron, why not grow it yourself? It’s actually quite easy. It blooms in the fall. And ironically the fall is when the bulbs are for sale. They’ll bloom the following fall.
But this does tell you that safflower petals are edible and can be used to garnish dishes—without any flavor.