Get to Know Burnets

Get the bigger picture of burnet

Fine Gardening – Issue 201
growing burnets
Did someone say pollinator plant? Burnet flowers are delightful in any size or color, from great burnet’s understated bobbles to Korean burnet’s eye-popping tassels. Based on the flurry of midsummer activity, butterflies, bees, and other pollinators appear to agree! Photos: (left) Robert Mabic/; (right) Stephanie Fagan

Burnets are easy to grow, have great textural foliage, stay mostly disease-free, and put on a supremely unique bloom show from summer into fall, when much of the garden looks fried. Here are a few other things to know about these interesting perennials.

Consistent moisture is key

Burnets do not like droughty or soggy soil, although drier sites with irrigation are fine.

They are best divided in spring or fall

dividing burnets
Photo: Danielle Sherry

These are rhizomatous herbaceous perennials that spread through an underground stem that often sends out roots and shoots from its nodes. It’s best to divide congested plants in spring or autumn to prevent larger clumps from getting center dieback.

Self-sowing is common

Burnets hybridize readily, leading to the possibility of unique seedlings; however, seed is abundantly produced and can self-sow vigorously. Deadheading curtails self-seeding and can enhance the late-season foliar display, since declining flowers—especially white ones—are not so pretty.

rabbit sitting in grass

Certain pests can be pesky

I wish that I could say burnets are trouble-free (as some references do), but deer, rabbits, and Japanese beetles were all annoying nibblers. Damage from Japanese beetles was usually a minor cosmetic blip—their flagrant intimacy was far more disturbing—whereas deer and rabbits seriously affected habit quality and flower display by reducing or delaying bloom.

Their flowers are unique

Burnet blossoms are in fact an inflorescence—the many-flowered spikes may be fingerlike spires, arching bottlebrushes, or compact raspberry-like knobs. Instead of having true petals, each tiny flower has colorful sepals and few to many exserted stamens, which brings both color and texture to the show. Indeed, bosses of especially long and showy stamens are what make some burnets look so fluffy.

burnet foliage
Photo: Stephanie Fagan

Foliar variation is a bonus

Flowers are certainly the main draw of burnets, but their pinnately dissected leaves—from delicate to boldly textured— are beautiful all on their own. Green, blue-green, and gray-green are common colors, while leaflets haloed in white or splashed and dotted with yellow are pleasing novelties. Distinctive sawtoothed margins heighten the textural treat. The number of leaflets vary by species—ranging from 7 to 20—but are always odd-numbered because the terminal leaflet is not paired like the rest.

Check out the top performers from the Chicago Botanic Garden burnets trial in Burnets Are Tough and Beautiful Plants.

And find some promising new comers in These New Burnets Deserve Your Attention.

Richard Hawke is plant evaluation manager at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, Illinois.

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