Photos by Sabina Rüber
Also known as the pin-cushion flower, Scabiosa atropurpurea is a relaxed, willowy flower on tall stems, a close relative of the field scabious, Knautia arvensis. It is a relaxed, unfussy plant, as happy in a meadow setting as in a border, and it will happily flower all summer and well into autumn, its fragrant, bee-friendly flowers blooming on and on if they are cut regularly for the vase. Native to the Mediterranean, it is strictly a short-lived perennial, but as it isn’t hardy, it is most often treated as an annual. It was one of the first of the Scabiosa species to be introduced into cultivation in the sixteenth century, when it and other members of the genus were used to treat a range of skin ailments. The name comes from the Latin scabere, ‘to scratch’.
Cultivars of S. atropurpurea vary in colour from pale white to deepest purple-black. The simplest option is to go for a colour mix such as ‘Tall Double Mix’, especially if you are growing them in a cut flower patch and want a range of colours. But if you prefer the control of a single colour, there are plenty of options. One of the most sultry and sophisticated is ‘Black Knight’, which has velvety dark purple flowers with a scattering of contrasting white stigmas. ‘Fata Morgana’ is a delightful clotted-cream colour, while ‘Snowmaiden’ is pure lacy white. ‘Salmon Queen’ is a very good pink. If you’re looking for a curiosity, and want something different to add into your cut flower mix, try Scabiosa stellata ‘Ping Pong’ (sometimes known as ‘Sternkugel’ or ‘Drumstick’). This has pale blue flowers, but it is the seed heads that provide the spectacle, with a collection of papery bracts that together form a perfect drumstick sphere. Look closely and each saucer-shaped bract is delicately lined, with a tiny dark star at its centre: absolutely beautiful.
If you choose to sow under cover, sow in modular trays, several seeds to a cell, and cover with a very fine layer of sieved compost. Germinate at temperatures of 15-20C. If the weather is warm enough, you can plant them straight out from the modules; or if you prefer to wait, grow them on in 7cm pots until you are ready to plant out. Give them a sunny spot in a border, cutting garden or meadow planting, remembering that they will thrive best in a poor soil, so there is no need to add large amounts of compost or to give them fertilizer as they grow.
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