The pincushion flower is a classic yet thoroughly modern plant

Modern gardeners are looking for good-looking plants which perform at their best with a minimum of fuss. They also want plants which are not susceptible to many pests and diseases, because they wish to reduce or eliminate the need to spray poisons in the garden.

For these reasons, they are selecting appropriate shrubs and trees for their region, and using them as the backbone of their gardens, filling in with tough yet beautiful flowering perennials plants which don’t need to be replaced every season. Seasonal annuals are only added in smaller areas for colour and accent, and in pots which can easily be maintained, and placed where they are most effective.

The pincushion flower fits the bill for a modern garden perfectly because it flowers abundantly, is hardy, grows quickly and easily, is fairly drought tolerant, and best of all, there are no serious pests and diseases which affect it. And, for those who are concerned about poisonous plants around your children and pets, the good news is that Scabiosa columbaria is listed as non-poisonous.

Scabiosa columbaria 'Butterfly Blue'Scabiosa columbaria 'Butterfly Blue'The Dipsacaceae or scabious family of plants has 290 species and is found in Africa and Asia, but is most abundant in the Mediterranean region, and in South Africa there are nine species. The deeply lobed, green to grey-green leaves of scabiosa are slightly hairy, and have an airy fern-like effect in the garden. The lightly fragrant flowers start opening in spring and continue flowering, off and on, until autumn, flitting in the breeze on long, gracefully bending stems, and when fully open, the clusters of tiny flowers look rather like little cushions with pins sticking out, hence their common name "pincushion flowers". Plant breeders have developed fantastic garden hybrids which are nice and compact, and which bloom even more profusely. They come in lovely pastel shades of lilac, lavender-blue, white and pink, and after flowering, the heads turn into tight, bristly balls, looking rather like furry sea urchins, and falling apart as the seeds ripen.

Scabiosa columbaria

This is a lovely wild flower with white or mauve flowers, and is widespread throughout Africa, Europe and Asia. It is widely distributed throughout South Africa in Limpopo, Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng, Eastern Cape, Northern Cape, Western Cape, Free State, North West, as well as Lesotho and Swaziland, where it is common in grasslands, on rocky slopes, and in bushveld habitats. There are beautiful garden hybrids of this species, like Scabiosa columbaria ‘Pink Mist’ which is a compact hybrid with soft pink flowers, and Scabiosa columbaria ‘Butterfly Blue’ with its gorgeous lavender-blue flowers.

Scabiosa africana

Bears large mauve flowers on 1m tall stems, and is a beautiful perennial which is perfectly happy in the fynbos, growing along the sheltered sandstone slopes of the Cape Peninsula. It flowers from spring to early summer, in shades of mauve and white, and is a beautiful sight when in full bloom.

Scabiosa incisa

This pincushion flower, with its large mauve or white flowers, blooms from early spring to the middle of summer, and occurs naturally in the coastal sands from Piketberg to Grahamstown. The best-known locality to find it in the wild is at Bokbaai, a farm along the West Coast, from where one has the most beautiful views of Table Mountain across the bay, and where it grows in deep sands between the coastal scrub.  Scabiosa incisa from Bokbaai is a particularly big form of scabiosa with large mauve flowers. A number of other beautiful forms are grown at Kirstenbosch, like Scabiosa incisa 'White Carpet' which forms a cloud of small white flowers in early summer, above a lush carpet of tight green foliage.

Uses:

Scabiosa columbaria is grazed by livestock, and traditionally, the roots and leaves were used medicinally to treat ailments like colic, heartburn, sterility and painful menstruation. The roots were also ground to make a pleasant smelling baby powder.

Scabiosa columbaria seed heads.  Image by WikimediaImages from PixabayScabiosa columbaria seed heads. Image by WikimediaImages from PixabayIn the Garden:

The pincushion flower, with its soft pastel shades, can be added to almost any colour scheme in the garden, and is just at home in a cottage garden as it is in ultra-modern settings. It makes a wonderful filler plant for perennial borders, and rock and gravel gardens, and is stunning when planted together with grasses and other perennials for a wild meadow look. Try combining it with Restio’s (Elegia), Daylilies (Hemerocallis), Butterfly Gaura (Gaura), Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla), Lavender (Lavandula), Cranesbill (Geranium incanum), Columbine (Aquilegia), and annuals like Alyssum, Salvias, Dianthus, Nicotiana, and Cosmos.

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Pincushion flowers are a must-have for cutting gardens, and interspersed amongst low-growing roses they really shine. The faintly scented flowers are good cut flowers and charming in mixed bouquets, with a long vase life of 8 to 10 days. The dried seed heads are also popular for dried arrangements.

This little plant is an ideal choice for a wildlife, bird or butterfly garden, attracting many insects and pollinators to its nectar-filled flowers, and seeds which are also sought-after by birds.

Scabiosa columbaria 'Pink Mist'Scabiosa columbaria 'Pink Mist'Cultivation/Propagation:

The Pincushion flower is fast growing, hardy to moderate frost, and loves to grow in full sun, but in very hot summer regions, it will appreciate some shade at midday.

Although it adapts to most garden soils with good drainage, the pincushion flower thrives in sandy, well-drained soil that is neutral to slightly alkaline, and will benefit from the addition of lime to acidic soils. In sandy, impoverished soils, add generous amounts of compost when planting.

Because the pincushion flower blooms for such a long season, feeding every 4 to 6 weeks during spring and summer with a balanced organic fertiliser like 3:1:5 will keep your plants blooming profusely.  In cooler regions, the plants may flower all summer, but because they really like the cooler weather, in extremely hot regions they may stop blooming in midsummer, but will start again in late summer and autumn.

Water young plants regularly until they are established, and moderately thereafter, as they can take short periods of drought, and dislike being overwatered - perfect for our hot and dry climate. Keep the plants on the dry side in winter.

Cutting out any dead branches and spent flowers regularly, will encourage more blooms and keep your plant neat. If your plants become unruly and you want to give them a new spurt of energy, try cutting the plants down to half their height with garden shears, lopping off the whole group like a pruned hedge, works miracles, and they will be blooming again in no time. The pincushion flower is a short lived perennial that should be replaced every 2 to 3 years.

Scabiosa will self-sow itself in the garden and you will spot clusters of seedlings around the plants in early spring. If you wish to save these new seedlings, transplant them early into other areas of the garden.  To stimulate growth, overgrown clumps can be lifted and divided in spring or early summer. Scabiosa is also easily propagated from cuttings taken in summer.

Seeds can be collected in autumn to dry and store for sowing later. However, hybrids like the Butterfly Series are sterile, and will not self-seed. Seed is sown in spring or autumn, depending on your climate. Sow in seedling trays and cover lightly with a fine seedling mix. Place the trays in a warm position and keep at 18 to 21˚C, ensuring that the soil is kept moist but not soggy until germination in two to three weeks. Transplant into small pots or bags, to grow on, keeping in a warm, bright position.

Problems, Pests & Diseases:

If cared for correctly, scabiosa are renowned for being trouble-free, with no serious pest and disease problems, and even the occasional aphid infestation in spring won’t harm them, but if needed, spraying with an insecticidal soap will get rid of them fast.   

Warning:

This species is non-poisonous and is often grazed by livestock.