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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Blues – this years’ wedding flower trend?

As our thoughts turn to the spring sowing of flower seeds we have been keeping an eye on the current trends for 2018 weddings.  Certainly the talk on the various bridal forums has indicated that blue, particularly navy and royal blue, is likely to be very popular this year.  This is also borne out by the orders we have received so far.

As there are relatively few true blue flowers this could potentially be challenging if we don’t carefully plan our sowing to ensure we have a good range in flowers throughout the season.  It is, however, not just about the blue as we need to ensure that we have a selection of complementary and contrasting colours available to set off the blues perfectly.

Pew ends in blue and white with a pop of yellow.
Pew ends of blue cornflowers and dutch iris alongside white roses and feverfew providing that tiny pop of yellow. Flowers by Honey Pot Flowers. Venue Wethele Manor, Warwickshire

So what are the options available for providing these blue floral arrangements with country garden flowers?

Powder Blue

I feel the lighter powder blues are perhaps easier to achieve than the darker navy and royal blues.  Many of these varieties make lovely garden plants as well as having the advantage of being good cut flowers.  Some of our favourites include:

  • ‘Love-in-a-mist’ (Nigella damascina and Nigella hispanica) – a lovely, delicate true blue flower that also yields interesting seed pods later in the season.
  • Ageratum – we particularly like the F1 strain ‘Blue Horizon’ as it has much longer cutting stems than the typical bedding varieties.  It is a great garden plant and goes on flowering its socks off and looking good until the first frosts of the autumn.
Ageratum 'Blue Horizon'
Ageratum ‘Blue Horizon’
  • Sea lavender (Limonium latifolium) – a light and delicate Limonium that is great for creating the open, wispy effect that sits so well with country garden wedding bouquets.  It also dries well.
  • Scabious – this is such a fantastic meadow style flower and always looks good in country style and wild garden bouquets.
Bouquet of white peonies, blue scabious and nigella
Bouquet of white peonies, blue scabious and nigella backed with asparagus fern and pittosporum. Flowers by Honey Pot Flowers
  • Sweet Peas – for fragrance you cannot beat the Sweet Pea and there are some pale blue varieties that fit this blue trend perfectly.
Pale blue sweet peas with lime green Alchemilla
Pale blue sweet peas with lime green Alchemilla
  • Didiscus – a delicate and interesting bloom that holds well and adds a meadow touch to any arrangement.
Didiscus
Didiscus

Mid-blue

  • Cornflowers – probably one of our most used blue flowers ideal for bouquets, arrangements and buttonholes.  They hold extremely well and can cope with being out of water for some time.  Cornflowers are one of a limited number of flowers that work reliably in a flower crown of fresh flowers on a hot summers day.  They are also edible and can be used as cake flowers.
Flower Girl Wand in blue and white bound with white satin.
Flower Girl Wand in blue and white bound with white satin. Flowers by Honey Pot Flowers
  • Delphiniums – these are extremely valuable as they come in a range of blues from a light powder blue shade, through mid-blue and also rich deep blues. The blooms are rather more ‘chunky’ than larkspur but that makes them particularly good for large pedestal and church arrangements.
  • Dutch Iris – blue is a receding colour and it often requires a pop of white or yellow to bring it to life.   There are some varieties of Dutch Iris which are almost a deep velvety blue but the typical dutch iris is mid-blue with a flash of yellow or white that sets off the blue nicely.

Deep Blue to Mauve/Purple

  • Anemone – if you are putting together a spring wedding then the Anemone will be one of the stars of the show.  We have found that they are relatively short lived in our garden and each year the flower stems get shorter and shorter.  Although still useful as a garden plant they become less useful as a cut flower as time goes by.  We therefore tend to buy and plant new corms each year to maintain a good crop of usable stems.
Country bouquet
Country bouquet featuring blue anenomes, dutch iris and limonium. Flowers by Honey Pot Flowers. Photograph by Michelle Hardy Photography http://www.michellehardyphotography.com/
  • Delphinium ‘Volkerfrieden’ – this Delphinium of the ‘Belladonna Group’ provides a true blue flower that is open and delicate.  It regularly appears in our Honey Pot Flowers designs!
  • Larkspur – although strictly speaking a Delphinium the annual Larkspur species D.consolida and D.ajacis tend to be much more delicate than the perennial border delphiniums.  They therefore lend themselves better to smaller bouquets and table arrangements and can also be dried and used for petal confetti.
Larkspur 'Braveheart'
Larkspur ‘Braveheart’
  • Clary Sage – a well behaved flower stem that provides colour all summer.  A useful filler in both the borders and in bouquets.  It is in fact the colourful bracts rather than the true flowers that provide the shot of blue.
  • Salvia caradona – a very useful addition to any arrangement providing an architectural spike of deep blue/mauve.  In the garden we do find that it is a short lived perennial that needs to be replaced regularly.
Blue and white wedding bouquet of cottage garden flowers
Blue and white wedding bouquet of Delphinium ‘Volkerfrieden’ and Cornflower with the deeper blue/mauve provided by Salvia caradona. Flowers by Honey Pot Flowers

Complementary and contrasting colours

I think it is important to mention that when designing with blue, either in a garden setting or in a floral arrangement, you need other colours to bring the blue to life.  Blue and white sit well together and provide a pleasing and relaxed effect but equally pairing deep blues and mauve with pops of yellow or even orange create a strong vibrant effect that can be truly stunning.

Blues have the ability to offer both soft or vibrant displays.  If the blues become a strong trend in 2018 it could prove to be a very exciting year.