Fragrant, great for cutting and a magnet for butterflies, annual scabious are a delight
Scabious are best known for perennials, especially in recent years as the low, almost ever-flowering butterfly magnets. Scabious are fairly familiar flowers, making squat domes of petals, often with a ring of larger petals around the edge. The fact that these ‘flowers’ are actually heads of florets. But these are not in the Asteraceae. They are related to teasels or at least they used to be. They were placed in the Dipsacaeae, which made some sense to me since structurally a scabious does look vaguely like a teasel. But now they are in the Caprifoliaceae and are related to honeysuckles. I just don’t see it. Damn that DNA analysis. All these revisions based on DNA are all very fine but the old system was based on what we could actually see!
Anyway, Scabiosa atropurpurea, a south Mediterranean native, is a popular annual. It forms a small rosette at first and then rockets up, producing tall stems with pinnate leaves, branching freely and then producing vibrant or pastel flowers that are loved by butterflies. In theory this is a perennial but it is not very hardy and needs well drained soil to stand any chance of surviving winter. The dark purple kinds are especially popular and are often sold, in bloom, in late summer. If these are planted at that time of year they have very little chance of getting through winter. When these were in their heyday, a couple of decades ago, I was caught out with these. The only places they survived was when in large planters beside the house.
They are easy to grow from seed and can be sown direct where they are to grow. There is a wide range of colours and they do make good cut flowers. They are faintly fragrant too. Most are quite tall, usually in excess of 60cm. They are best grown among other plants or given some brushwood to keep them upright or they are bound to flop over in the rain or wind. They look at their best among ornamental grasses, in my opinion.
I desperately want to love annual scabious but there is something that does not quite fill me with delight. I grow them mainly because I think they will benefit wildlife but do enjoy the flowers too. This is not the only species that can be grown as an annual though and the one I like best is S. stellata. This has smaller and duller flowers but these are followed by round seedheads made up of the large, papery seeds.