Picture yourself in July, the sun is shining and you are taking a gentle amble down a quiet country lane, the warm breeze is reflecting off the track and the blue field scabious (Knautia avensis) are gently moving in the wind. The butterflies and other insects are quietly working their way amongst the roadside flowers enjoying the rich nectar. Smiling yet?
Certainly if you are looking to create the look and feel of a meadow in either your garden, at your wedding or in your floristry arrangements then the inclusion of summer flowering scabious is an absolute essential. They are nectar rich and excellent at attracting a wide range of butterflies, moths and other pollinating insects and they provide a loose, open and natural feel to any arrangement. With so many species and varieties to choose from you are spoilt for choice.
The naming of Scabious and its relatives
Often referred to as pincushion flowers due to the beautiful detail of the stamens, the name ‘Scabious’ is believed to be derived from ‘scabies’. In medieval times the plant was reportedly used to treat the severe itching that results from this disease.
The term ‘Scabious’ is commonly used across a number of related genera; Scabiosa, Knautia, Cephalaria and Succisa. They belong to the honeysuckle family, Caprifoliaceae (although many references still refer to them belonging to the teasel family, Dipsacaceae, which I believe has now been merged with Honeysuckle family² ).
Getting them started
We usually sow our scabious seeds indoors in half trays of damp compost lightly covered with vermiculite. I usually cover the trays in cling film until the seedlings start to emerge so I don’t have to worry about watering the trays before the green shoots appear. We rarely sow straight into the ground as too many of our precious plants succumb to slugs and weeds. You can sow throughout April so if you want to try these charming plants there is still time.
Once the seedlings are large enough to handle we prick out into modules or trays of compost until the weather is warm enough to harden them off and plant them out. Don’t be tempted to plant them out too early or they will just sulk.
Growing them on
Typically scabious like full sun and well drained soil. We tend to plant out at one Waverley standard trowel length apart (c. 9 inches). Growing the young plants in modules makes this so much easier and prevents excessive disturbance when they are planted out.
We do find that some scabious can be a bit wayward and need to be supported if you want long straight stems that are good for cutting and arranging. We support many of our flowers in the cutting garden using horizontal pea netting. By stretching across the bed using canes we can raise the height gently as the plants develop. The holes are big enough to place your hand through for cutting and if you buy a good quality netting it can be used again and again, year after year.
If you want to keep them flowering, keep cutting. They will flower all summer long until the first frosts cut them back. However, if you do miss some the seed heads are also very attractive and can make a interesting addition to late summer arrangements.
Cutting and conditioning
Scabious are very straight forward when it comes to cutting and conditioning. As with most flowers they are best cut in the early morning before the sun gets too hot. Cut straight into clean fresh water with floral preservative removing any leaves that lie below the water surface and leave to condition in a cool place for at least 2 hours and preferably overnight. They can be used with floral foam.
The stage of development at which you cut is quite critical if you want to achieve a long vase life. If you cut a flower that is too mature then the flower will soon shatter and the petals will fall. It is quite difficult to describe the correct stage in words and so I have tried to illustrate this with the following two pictures of Scabiosa atropurpurea.
Many flowers have traditional meanings and their inclusion in bouquets or posies indicated a particular sentiment or emotion. Scabious generally signifies ‘unfortunate love’ with Sweet Scabious (Scabiosa atropurpurea) more specifically meaning ‘widowhood’.
We grow a lot off this S. atropurpurea in the flower garden. It comes in a wide range of wonderful colours from blue, white, violet, crimson and burgundy. The darker colours in particular are set off beautifully by the white stamens. It has a sweet honey like scent and has the common name Sweet Scabious (but is also known as the mourning bride scabious so you may wish to reflect on this if using it in wedding bouquets!).
Although strictly a perennial it is said to only be hardy to zero degrees centigrade. In our garden in Warwickshire (UK Midlands) it rarely survives the winters and so we treat it like an annual sowing fresh plants each year. It grows very quickly and flowers throughout the summer if you keep cutting.
When deciding where to plant it think Mediterranean. Like many flowers if you add too much fertiliser or water you will suppress flowering and get lots of lush foliage instead.
Scabiosa caucasica is much hardier than S. atropurpurea and is said to be hardy to -18°C. It originates from the Caucasus, Northern Iran and North Eastern Turkey growing in subalpine meadows and rocky slopes ¹ . Like many Mediterranean plants it is the dampness that will kill it in the winter rather than the cold so it needs to be in a well drained position in the garden. It is reported¹ to be short lived on acid or wet soils and prefers a chalky or limy soil in full sun.
S. caucasica has a much flatter flower with a more pronounced centre than S. atropurpurea. The stems tend to be much sturdier than S. atropurpurea and this makes it an excellent cut flower. S. caucasica is probably one of our favourite meadow style flowers for incorporating in our country style wedding bouquets at Honey Pot Flowers. A beautiful flower.
This is a deep crimson scabious producing many small flowers throughout the summer. It is truely perennial in our garden and is hardy to -20°C or less. In the wild it grows in scrub and open woods¹. K. macedonica has been a bit of a labour of love for us having tried on many occasions to germinate it from seed with little success. Eventually we succeeded and it was worth the effort.
Our treasured plants do however seem to be very tasty and we have to protect them in the early months of the year from both slugs and snails. Claire Austin does describe it as rabbit resistant although we find we have to protect the young plants from rabbits in the early months.
A charming little plant that adds something very different to the summer garden. Not terribly useful as a cut flower but lovely in an informal border.
(c)2007 Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man). Location credit to the Chanticleer Garden. [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons
This one is perhaps something of an impostor in this list. It is something we have tried to grow from seed on a number of occasions without success. However, it is such a beautiful plant that I am sure we will try again to get one established. There is a wonderful specimen in one of our local National Trust properties at Upton House.
As the common name Giant Scabious suggests, C. gigantea is a big plant growing into a large clump of some 6 feet in height. It is a hardy perennial producing delicate, pale yellow flowers, from June until September. It is probably not something for the small garden.
Unlike the other scabious listed above, C. gigantea grows naturally in wet meadows and by streams and is a native of the Caucasus and Northern Turkey¹.
By S. Rae from Scotland, UK (giant scabious) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
- “Perennials: Volume 2 Late perennials” by Roger Phillips and Martyn Rix (ISBN: 0-330-29275-7)
- LuontoPortti / NatureGate
Honey Pot Flowers are wedding and celebration florists based in Warwickshire in the United Kingdom specialising in natural, locally grown seasonal flowers. We grow many of our own flowers allowing us to offer something very different and uniquely personal.