Scabious Flowers for Butterflies

4 July 2013

There are a lot of scabious-type flowers, many of which are classed in the scabiosa family, but some of which are put in other familes.  All the ones I know will be used by butterflies, and probably moths, for nectar, and a dozen or more moths use various varieties as foodplants for their catepillars. They all have pin-cushion shaped flowers (some flatter than others) on long, wiry stems.

There are several scabious found in the wild: I’m just growing some field scabiousn but it hasn’t flowered yet, so I can’t report on it, but I have got devil’s-bit scabious, and this makes a good garden plant; in the wild it tends to be found in damper meadows, but in the garden it seems pretty tolerant of most non-extreme conditions. Like all scabious, the leaves stay low, and the flowers are much higher, but in this version even the flowers only get to about 18″ (45cm) at most. In the wild, devils-bit scabious is the food plant of the Marsh Fritillary, which is a beautiful butterfly – I’ll give you a photo of it below, not taken by me. Unfortunately, you won’t get the Marsh Frit in your garden, no matter how much devil-bit scabious you grow – it needs specialised conditions.

Marsh Fritillary - photo by Mark Pike

Marsh Fritillary – photo by Mark Pike

The first of the cultivated varieties I’ve got, as in the right-hand photo below, is knautia macedonica; this comes in either pastel shades of pink and mauve, or a deep red; you can judge the height of the flowers from comparing them to the foxglove: they are quite tall, but very airy, so they don’t block the view of the plants behind them very solidly. There is a version of the dark red one called ‘Mars midget’, which I’ve just grown from seed, so hopefully it will flower this year.  We had a couple of goldfinches on our knautia only yesterday –  feeding on the flowerheads setting seed.

Left: Devil's-bit scabious flower with a Comma butterfly. Right: the mauve-coloured bobbles of knautia macedonica.

Left: Devil’s-bit scabious flower with a Comma butterfly. Right: the mauve-coloured bobbles of knautia macedonica.

I’ll continue the scabious story in the next article, but you cannot go wrong growing any variety of this very easy-going plant. The garden varieties are widely available, and it is getting easier to buy the wild ones – do remember it’s against the law to dig up wild plants, though you can take some seed. Happy growing!


5 Responses to “Scabious Flowers for Butterflies”

  1. I have devils bit scabious and this will be its second year in my garden. Only one flower came up last year but this year there looks like there are more buds. I was just wondering if I should feed it with any liquid feed to encourage flowering as last year it didn’t come to very much at all and I’m not convinced that the soil it’s in has many nutrients in it to help it flower or is it one of those plants that I should just leave alone?

    • Hi Mandy. Good question. Most wild flowers don’t need much in the way of nutrients, so I think I’d leave it as it is unless the leaves are looking yellow: if you feed, there is always a danger of getting a lot of leaf and no flower. It might just have needed a bit of time to settle in. One further thought – is it in sunshine? As a plant of open meadows it probably doesn’t take to shade.

      Let me know how it goes

  2. Hi Lyn, loads of buds on my dbs and one is in full flower and is a lovely creamy white but it smells awful lol!! is it supposed to smell that bad?? I just wondered how it would attract butterflies or do they go for plants that smell full stop rather than smell nice. the other buds look like they’ll be out soon but I am astounded at how large it is and I’m going to have to move the echinaceas as it’s blocking out the sun for them:(


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