How to Grow Scabiosa (Pincushion Flower)
How to Grow Scabiosa (Pincushion Flower)
Scabiosa- so named because it was rumored that it could cure mange - is an old European flower that has been grown by gardeners all over the world. It’s also earned the name “pincushion flower” due to the fact that the ends of the stamens look like tiny white pinheads that have been sunken into a velvety, fluffy center of a flower.
Scabiosa are one of the flowers that we love to grow because of their ease of growth, ease of care, and the character that their stems bring to any arrangement. The same swoops and curls and swirls that poppies or ranunculus display with their stems are the shapes and motion that scabiosa can lend to an arrangement.
Despite it having an odd name (and looking weird as well) scabiosa was also one of the most profitable and requested items when we were growing for florists and designing for weddings - the Dark Knight variety in particular - due to its striking appearance on its own as well as being able to mold and meld with a variety of flowers. It was actually one of our top selling items our first year!
If you grow one plant in your garden, scabiosa is a no-brainer. Here are some tips on how to grow it.
Selecting your Variety
There are two types of scabiosa - annual and perennial. The perennial types are really gorgeous - the ‘Fama’ series in particular coming in shades of pure white and blue-purple - and germinate relatively easily.
However, the annual scabiosa are what really get my heart going. Coming in shades of red, light lavender, pure white, champagne, rose pink and deep burgundy purple, they are both colorful and prolific. Our favorite is the deep burgundy purple ‘Dark Knight’ due to its color and growth habit as well as its long stems that are perfect for cutting.
There are also a few other odd varieties that are of interest. Scabiosa ochroleuca is a prolific light colored perennial scabiosa that is productive - if a bit messy in its growth habit. Scabiosa stellata, also known as ‘Moonflower’ due to its decorative seedhead that looks like some sort of geodesic dome is a gorgeous flower to grow, and its dried seedheads are a particular favorite of us for using in dried arrangements.
If you’re looking for some particular drama in the garden, there is the giant scabious - Cephalaria gigantea usually gets up to 4 feet, maybe even up to 6 feet in some cases with cream colored flowers that shoot up into the air. Might not be the easiest to use in an arrangement, but it makes for a fantastic sight in the garden.
Annual scabiosa is a bit of a longer plant to start flowering, taking around 90-100 days to do so. It also will bloom best if you plant it out when the nights and days are cold - this allows for them to build a really nice root system before they start blooming, meaning hardier and more robust plants that will produce more blooms on long thick stems.
Perennial scabiosa usually doesn’t start blooming for us until late summer/early fall, even when started early. Still, they should bloom the first year, but it’s important to get them started early.
When hardened off, scabiosa can take quite a bit of cold and even a light frost. We even have some annual scabiosa survive our winters here in New Mexico when sheltered and kept dry.
Both annual and perennial scabiosa start from seed very easily. Their papery, shuttlecock shaped seeds are large and easy to handle, so it makes seeding a lot easier (compared to the nightmare of foxglove or poppy seeds).
One thing to note is that when you’re planting the seeds, the shoot is actually going to come out of the back of the shuttlecock - the feathery areas, not the point. Don’t make the mistake of planting the pointy area into the soil, because the seed is going to have to sprout and then turn 180 to get into the soil. Instead, plant your seeds on their side so the shoot can make its way out easily.
We like transplants - scabiosa transplants pretty easily without much issue of disturbance - but you could direct sow if you wanted to.
4. Growing Out
After you have your baby scabiosa (they’re so cute!) you’ll want to harden them off for a few days. Since scabiosa are such hardy plants, you can plant them out at any point - first set of leaves, three sets of leaves or fully established plant.
We generally will plant out at around the second or third set of leaves, planting out at 6” intervals if we’re aiming for cut flower production. Water them in well, giving them a nice deep soaking to saturate their root systems and the surrounding soil.
Scabiosa is pretty drought tolerant as well once established. It does like a decent amount of fertilization, so make sure that you keep them well fed and well watered.
To harvest scabiosa for their flowers, you’ll want to wait until they are fully open or almost fully open. If you want to harvest them for your home, you’ll want to snip them when the florets have just opened. I always judge this by looking at the stamens (the little white thread-like male sexual organs of the flower) - they should look like little grains of rice or coconut shreds on top of the flower.
If you wait until the stamens have more of the dot or pin-shaped appearance, then you’re already got a scabiosa flower that’s over the hill. It’s only a matter of time before it will start to lose all the little florets at that point, so make sure you harvest earlier.
If you’re selling to florists or wanting to have a longer vase life, then you’ll want to harvest them when they are still in bud. The flower opens from the outermost petals inwards, so when picking for florists I will generally harvest when the outer petals are open, but before the innermost petals in the center have opened to ensure the vase life is as long as possible.
I’ve gotten two weeks out of scabiosa before - this was in the fall, in an air conditioned office and out of the sun, but it was still pretty impressive. You’ll notice as well in the fall that your stems will get longer and thicker and the flowers bigger and more impressive. I was cutting giant golf-ball sized blooms off the regular annual scabiosa just before frost, and even after the first frost they kept pumping out those giant blooms.
If you’re harvesting the seedheads - such as those of Scabiosa stellata - then you’ll want to wait until the florets have completely fallen off the seedhead, but before it gets too brown and dry - it should still have green “eyes” on the seedhead to ensure that it will stay fresh and not shatter when you pick it.
If you’re drying the seedheads, then I recommend harvesting when the seedhead is still fresh - and then hanging them to dry. This way, you won’t have to deal with the seedheads losing their seeds.
To use scabiosa in arrangements, we usually use them as a supporting or helper flower. Scabiosa, especially the ‘Dark Knight’ is the perfect compliment or accent to any arrangement, and they blend very well.
On the other hand, if you’re going for more of a wild or loose look, you can also use scabiosa the same way you would poppies or chocolate cosmos to create visual interest with the shape of the stem. Some designers will place a single long stem of a poppy or a scabiosa that, instead of acting like a supporter or helper flower, will act as a vertical element in the arrangement, drawing the eye inwards and upwards.
If you’re growing the large perennial ‘Fama’ scabiosa, they can sometimes be used as a focal flower themselves given the size and extent of their bloom. My favorite thing to do with the ‘Fama’ series is to combine them with annual scabiosa of the same color - the white ‘Snowmaiden’ and the light lavender ‘Oxford Blue’.
If using the seedheads, you can use them in a similar fashion as a helper flower or as a vertical accent. In addition, if you’re making a very large arrangement they can be used as a filler if the scale is large enough.
Again, if you haven’t thought about trying scabiosa, you really should. Such an easy-going, easy-to-grow and fabulous looking flower deserves a place in every garden, especially one that’s geared towards cutting. I hope you enjoyed this growing guide and wish you the best of luck growing scabiosa!