Pincushion flower or Scabiosa (named after its herbal use of curing itching) is a family that includes both annual and perennial flowers.
The perennial Scabiosa species grow best in a deep, rich soil. This is not a plant for clay soils as the perennial Scabiosa species will die off during the winter. A lighter sandier soil with generous applications of compost will grow an excellent pincushion flower.
Common names: Devil’s Bit, Scabious, Pincushion Flower
Scabiosa comes from the Latin scabies ‘itch’ – a condition and disease the leaves were reputed to cure. Devil’s Bit came to us as a legend from antiquity. It appears that the devil found this plant in paradise but because he envied the goodness and beneficial nature of this plant to humanity, he bit away part of the root so it would be useless to the human race. The plant survived in spite of the devil and still today bears the mark with a deformed root. Scabious is of course a corruption of scabiosa while Pincushion Flower refers to the way the individual flowers are constructed (and that resemble a pincushion).
- Bloom time: Mid to late summer
- Height: 18” to 30”
- Sun needed: Full to part
- Bloom color: Blue, white, burgundy
- Planting space: 12” to 18”
- Soil preferred: Well-drained, preferably alkaline.
- Propagation method: Seed, division or basal cuttings
Flower heights range from 12″right up to 36″ depending on variety. The flowers can be fragrant depending on variety but all look like miniature pincushions with spiky petals (hence the name) in colours of reddish purple (almost black but it’s a tender annual) , pink, salmons, rose, or blue tones.
Deadheading or picking off the dead pincushion flower heads (take all the stem too) will keep the plant blooming for most of the summer. If you let the pincushion flower go to seed, it will slow down cut flower production. The flowers make excellent fresh cut flowers.
Generally, the shorter plants are planted 8-12 inches apart and the taller plants are spaced at 18” apart in the full sunshine.
Part shade locations will increase the incidence of powdery mildew – a disease that is a serious one for this plant.
Powdery mildew starts as a white powder on the leaves of pincushion flower plant rapidly expands to the entire plant. It is usually severe and the subsequent weak condition of the plant usually kills it during the winter. Powdery mildew is severe enough that although pincushion flower blooms all summer it is not a good candidate for container growing; the restricted air movement in the container leads to problems.
Seeds of annual pincushion plant or perennial species can be sown 10 weeks before the desired planting date. Sow the seed and barely cover them. Keep the soil at 70F and germination will happen within 14 days. You can also sow them outdoors after danger of frost but they will be very late to bloom.
Older clumps can be divided easily in the spring; simply dig them up and separate into smaller chunks making sure each chunk has some roots. If you have an older struggling, straggy plant, a renovation will work marvels at restoring the blooms.
In 2000, the Perennial Plant Association named Scabiosa columbaria ‘Butterfly Blue’ as perennial plant of the year. This plant will bloom all spring right through to late fall if deadheaded. And it loves full sunshine and heat although if you restrict the air movement around the plant, it is susceptible to powdery mildew. The only way to propagate this plant is by taking stem cuttings. It does not come true from seed although it can also be divided.
Important! When planting it from a container, put the crown of the plant at the same depth in the soil as it is in the pot. Do not sink the plant or you’ll wind up with crown rot.
Scabiosa caucasica A perennial form growing 24-36” tall. There are many varieties of this available in Europe that have not yet crossed the Atlantic. Excellent taller plants and well worth searching out in specialty catalogs.
‘Moorheim Blue’ to 36” tall and dark blue flowers
‘Perfecta’ 24” with fringed blue flowers.
Scabiosa columbaria Many seed packages are labeled with this name; it seems to have become the generic name for many hybrids.
‘Butterfly Blue’ is 18” tall and lavender blue.
‘Pink Mist’ 18inches tall with pale pink flowers.
‘Pink Cushion’ 8 to 12” tall and delightful, bright pink blooms. Needs to grow at front of border.
Potions and Poisons
The roots were used (no longer) for a tea for coughs, fevers and internal inflammation. It was also reputed to be very powerful against the plague. There are no concerns with growing this plant.