Scabious – the essence of an English Country Garden

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 ).

Scabious 'Oxford Blue'
Scabious ‘Oxford Blue’ sits beautifully within this birthday bouquet of whites, blue and yellow. Flowers by Honey Pot Flowers

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.

Willow heart
Dark burgundy Scabiosa atropurpurea, blue ageratum and yellow rudbeckia decorating a hand-made willow heart. Flowers by Honey Pot Flowers

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.

Lilac Scabiosa atropurpurea and seedhead
Lilac Scabiosa atropurpurea and seed head (right).

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.

Scabious flowers slightly too mature for cutting.
Scabious flowers slightly too mature for cutting. The central florets are all open and the pollen is very visible. Will have a reduced vase life and petals may fall prematurely.
Ideal cutting stage for Scabious.
Ideal cutting stage for Scabious. Central florets are still in bud whilst the outer florets are open

Floriography

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’.

Scabiosa atropurpurea

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.

Deep burgundy scabious
Deep burgundy scabious with its white pin cushion stamens makes a striking contrast in this celebration bouquet with dahlias, phlox, liatris and antirrhinums. Flowers by Honey Pot Flowers

Scabiosa caucasica

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.

Scabiosa caucasica
Beautiful blue and white country style wedding bouquet incorporating pale blue Scabiosa caucasica, white peonies, blue nigella and white astilbe and veronica. Flowers by Honey Pot Flowers

Knautia macedonica

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.

Knautia Knautia macedonica Flower Insect 1626px

(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

Cephalaria gigantea

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.

Giant scabious - Flickr - S. Rae
By S. Rae from Scotland, UK (giant scabious) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons 

References

  1. “Perennials:  Volume 2 Late perennials” by Roger Phillips and Martyn Rix (ISBN:  0-330-29275-7)
  2. 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.

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3 fragrant roses for Autumn

Roses for October
Repeat flowering roses flowering well into October

June may well be the best month for roses in the garden but there are some stonking repeat flowering varieties that continue to flower well into the autumn.

These are three of our favourites growing in the Honey Pot Flowers garden and photographed on 17 October.  They all flower consistently well, remain remarkably unblemished by the wind and rain and are good for cutting having long, strong stems.

“Boscobel” (deep pink – good fragrance)

“Sweet Juliet” (light peachy pink – very strongly fragrant)

“Simply the Best” (peachy orange – mild fragrance)

If only you could experience the fragrance wafting around this room with me now !!

Future plans for the cutting garden

Cutting garden plan small

The Honey Pot Flowers cutting garden has been a very productive space over the last six years providing us with a wide range of beautiful cut flowers for use in our wedding flowers, gifts and celebration bouquets.

However to grow efficiently and provide easy cutting the garden was created in long straight beds using large blocks of the same species or variety. It worked very well for us but we have decided that we want now to develop the garden to be more aesthetically pleasing, still a cutting garden but somewhere that you want to stop, sit and enjoy.

Visitors often think the cutting garden will be a wonderful sight, full of colour, but in reality there is often little to see as it has all been picked.  By its very nature an efficient, large commercial cutting garden will be constantly picking and there should only be a few flowers in bloom.

Our aim over the next few years is to move away from a production orientated flower garden to one that a wonderful place to be.  No longer large blocks of a single species but a garden that has wonderful colour combinations and fragrant flowers, changing naturally as the seasons develop.

During the last six years, working as wedding florists with seasonal British flowers, we have learnt a lot about bringing together stunning combinations and arrangements.  We recognise that these ‘bouquets’ cannot necessarily be created in a garden setting as many of the plants you use in a bouquet may need different growing conditions.   However, what we are seeking to create as you look across the garden each day of the year is a series of colour themed cameos along similar lines.

This vision requires a major change to the layout and design of our flower garden.  It will continue to include a wide range of annuals, biennials and perennials but will increasingly involve more shrubs and roses.

I call this approach formal informality.  We have used this in other parts of the garden very effectively, combining formal well clipped hedging with cottage garden planting of foxgloves, hesperis and campanulas.  In my view the association works very well and creates a striking effect.

In addition to adding more formal hedging and having fun with our planting plans we are also looking to use height variations to add additional interest.

More details to follow …

Join us on this journey- creating a beautiful English country garden.

We are starting a new era and setting out on an exciting journey – we would like you to share this with us.

We are Carol and Steve Lucey, a husband and wife team with a life long interest in growing beautiful plants, being creative and enjoying the countryside.  We are now in a position to spend more time developing our own garden, building on over 30 years working in agriculture and horticulture research, as a garden designer and professional gardener and more recently growing a wide range of wonderful British cut flowers.  For the last six years we have had great fun, developing a new business providing locally grown British cut flowers and events floristry for weddings, gifts and celebrations.

For a number of years our flower garden, though beautiful has been a rather utilitarian space.  The objective has been to grow as many flowers as possible.  Not a bad objective but we feel it is now time to develop the garden into a more creative and beautiful space, focusing on the enjoyment of wonderful plant combinations rather than purely seeking the biggest income.

Although it is a great pleasure in its own right a garden is for sharing and through this blog we would like to share our successes and the inevitable failures and ask you for your advice and comment.

As well as the development of the garden we are keen to exploit what it produces.  Much of the garden yields produce to eat and we will be sharing some of the exciting recipes and drinks that result.  We would love to receive your recipes as well.

Our life in wedding floristry also remains a passion and over the months we will bring together some of the wonderful flower combinations that you may wish to try out yourself.

Finally, we share the garden with the local wildlife and will share the rich biodiversity that we have around us.

We look forward to hearing from you over the coming years!