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Growing Wild Scabious

Growing Wild Scabious
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© Text and photographs Jenny Steel 2017

Wildflowers to attract butterflies are always in demand by wildlife-friendly gardeners and this month’s selection fit the bill very well indeed.  The ‘scabious’ flowers that many of us grow in our gardens – whether wild or cultivated varieties – are renowned for their ability to bring many types of insect, and butterflies in particular, to borders and meadows. 

Like the daisy family they have many small, colourful flowers or florets with plenty of nectar and pollen clustered on tall stems, offering a platform for passing insects to alight upon.  They are easy to grow, long lived and flower well into the late summer.  In all they are excellent wildflowers for the garden.

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Perhaps the best known of this group is the teasel.  The scabious flowers are members of the family Dipsacaceae and the wild teasel’s Latin name, Dipsacus fullonum, reflects its place amongst the mauve scabious flowers that we are more familiar with.  This plant is rather different from its cousins, having quite bristly leaves and stems, but its ability to attract bumblebees and butterflies makes it a wonderful plant to include in the garden where you have space.  It can reach two metres or more in height so if you plant it in your garden make sure you position it at the back of a border or in a wild spot.  It is happy in light shade as well as full sun and being a biennial it will sow its seeds around with abandon.  These will germinate in the autumn producing attractive rosettes to provide interest through the winter months.  Seeds sown in the spring in pots or where they are to flower will also germinate with ease. 

Teasel heads are wonderfully unusual.  The tiny pinky-mauve flowers open in a ring around the flower head, beginning at the tip and slowly opening downwards over time, so the whole flower head is never open all at once.  This has the advantage of providing nectar over a long period.  Hoverflies, bumblebees and peacock butterflies especially love this plant, but its usefulness to the wildlife gardener isn’t over when all the flowers have gone.  The seeds are adored by goldfinches - they will actively seek out teasels and extract every last seed from the spiky head through the autumn and winter months.

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Teasels heads were used in the past for ‘teasing’ cloth – evenly raising the nap with their small hooked spines.  More often it was the variety known as fuller’s teasel that was employed – a subspecies from southern Europe which is smaller than our native and has curved tips to the spines.  This plant can still be seen in the wild especially in areas such as the Cotswolds where wool production was once an important industry.

For some gardens the teasel is a rather too exuberant plant, but the field scabious (Knautia arvensis), with its haze of mauve pincushions throughout the summer months, is a plant that every garden should have.  Flowering begins in mid summer and continues into September or later.  The early flowers are quite large, as much as four centimetres across, but as the summer progresses they become smaller and smaller.  This species will grow to a metre or so, its branched flowering stems bearing large numbers of flower heads, each of which then produces a pretty faceted seed head.  Butterflies of many species love the field scabious but the small tortoiseshell in particular will find it.  Like the teasel it germinates well from seed although it is a little erratic.  It is best to sow in spring or autumn in large seed trays and remove the seedlings as they germinate, moving them into pots or plugs.  Small plants will continue to appear in the seed tray for several months so don’t despair if you only get a few at first.  Once grown on a little, seedlings can be planted into a meadow or the middle of a mixed border.  One of the joys of this plant is that its robust nature means that it can hold its own in rough grass, even couch, alongside a hedge or under fruit trees in any soil type.  This has to be one of my favourite wildflowers for its wildlife attracting ability, its tenacity and its gentle beauty.  No garden should be without it.

Small scabious (Scabiosa columbaria) is quite a different plant from the field scabious.  It is smaller in height (about 30 - 40 cms in flower) and more compact, making it ideal for a container, a small border or a gravel garden, although it can seed rather well and may become a nuisance in the latter.  Having said that it would be difficult to have too much of it!  It has masses of beautiful pale mauve flowers and small tortoiseshell butterflies love it.  It prefers full sun and a drier, more free draining soil than the field scabious, coming as it does from wild, chalky habitats, but is pretty adaptable in the garden.  Avoid it in any soil that might become waterlogged where the devil’s-bit scabious should be your plant of choice.  Small scabious seeds can be sown in the spring in pots or trays and they germinate easily.  Again prick them out as they appear, keeping your seed tray safe for the latecomers.

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If you have a clay soil, a pond or a bog garden, the purple pincushions of devil’s-bit scabious (Succisa pratensis) are a must.  This plant will grow in grass on a damp pond edge, in a meadow on clay soil or it will thrive in a bog garden.  It has gorgeous dark, purple-blue flowers on tall stems and these appear late in the summer, sometimes into October.  This is another excellent insect attractant with both pollen and nectar for bumblebees and butterflies.  Its late flowering period makes it especially useful for insects in the autumn preparing for hibernation.  Unlike the other species, this wildflower is not terribly easy to grow from seed.  Its germination is slow and the best way to coax it into growth is to ensure that the compost is saturated at all times.  This reproduces the conditions in which this plant grows in the wild. Obtain seed from a reputable grower, sow on the surface of the compost, cover the seed only lightly and stand the pot in a plant saucer which is kept filled with water at all times.

Although our own native scabious flowers make brilliant garden plants, there are other ornamental non-native varieties that are worthy of a place in a wildlife-friendly garden.  Shining scabious (Scabiosa lucida) is a European wildflower with pink-mauve flowers and for a completely different shade you could try yellow scabious, Scabiosa ochroleuca, which is excellent for butterflies.  Scabiosa rummelica (otherwise known as Knautia macedonica) is dark crimson and there are many gorgeous coloured annual varieties of sweet scabious, Scabiosa atropurpurea.  If you are prepared to go a bit wild, you could try Cephalaria gigantea which can reach 2 metres or more and will produce large creamy yellow scabious flowers which bring the bumblebees in droves.

These flowers, whether native or not, are excellent butterfly and bumblebee attractants.  Whether for the front or back of the border, in a wild spot, a pond edge or meadow, a scabious will always add plenty of colour and masses of wildlife interest.

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