Posts tagged ‘Devils-bit scabious’

July 4, 2013

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!

April 4, 2013

Wildflowers I grow in the garden

4 April 2013

Teasel seed heads in front of verbena bonariensis flowers

Teasel seed heads in front of verbena bonariensis flowers

  Wild flowers I grow for wildlife (or which grow themselves and I tolerate) include:

  • Brambles (only in the hedge!) – flowers are good for butterflies; it is the foodplant for many moth caterpillars and butterflies will feed on the blackberries
  • Dandelions – brilliant for early nectar
  • Devil’s-bit scabious – almost all scabious flowers are good for insects
  • Teasels – fantastic value: the butterflies like the flowers and goldfinches go for the seeds
  • Woodruff – foodplant for several moth caterpillars and brilliant in the garden: I’ve even got some growing at the foot of a leylandii hedge, where little else will survive.
  • Red dead-nettle, for very early nectar – the photo below was taken on 18 Feburary this year.
  • White deadnettle for bees and caterpillars – and because I like it!
  • Garlic Mustard (also known as Jack-by-the-hedge and many other common names). Caterpillar foodplant of the Green-veined White and the Orange Tip. It dies down by mid summer, so it’s out of the way.
Red dead-nettle

Red dead-nettle

March 27, 2013

What’s the difference between a garden plant and a wildflower?

27 March 2013

Our passion for putting labels on things leads to some rather odd distinctions: “plants” and “weeds”, “friends” and “foes” when we’re talking about insects, and “garden plants” versus “wildflowers”.  In the last case, if you think about it, every plant is the offspring of a wild flower at some point in history – unless they were brought here by aliens, but dandelion delivery by UFO doesn’t really work for me.

Comma on devil's-bit scabious flower

Comma on devil’s-bit scabious flower

Garden plants, as we label them, have been bred with the gardener in mind, which does not always suit wildlife – the trend towards double rather than single flowers, for example, often means insects cannot get to the nectar-producing part of the plant. There is some argument that nectar is nectar and many garden plants are as good as wildflowers, but when it comes to providing food for caterpillars, many butterflies and moths have developed to eat very specific plants over the millennia and may not be able to change their allegiance easily.  My basic rule of thumb is that you can’t go wrong with wildflowers, whereas garden plants can vary considerably in their use to wildlife. One of the plants you’ve probably got most of in your garden because someone put it there is the rye grass that makes up a lot of lawns, and it is pretty useless for insects.

Sweet Woodruff

Sweet Woodruff

We tend not to see much in-depth information on growing wild flowers – an author might exhort you to grow devil’s-bit scabious or sweet woodruff, but they give no detail of the soil or position the plant likes. I constantly find myself turing to two sources: the “Wild flower specification manual” from Really Wild Flowers, and the “National Trust Book of Wildflower Gardening” by John Stevens for this detailed information.

Really Wild Flowers are a company who specialise in growing wild flowers for sale, and their “Wild flower specification manual” is available as a free download: go to  and then go to the advice section and find the downloads, where you will also find documents on butterfly food/nectar plants and on plants generally good for insects. The National Trust book is now out of print, but available very cheaply via Amazon.

One of the great things about wildflowers is they often prefer to grow in places where you roses and dahlias would struggle to put on a show, so they can be good for you as a gardener as well as the wildlife in your garden – try some.