I love a garden full of flowers, but that’s only half the story. A garden feels incomplete with just plants, no matter how pretty they are. We’ve set the stage. The background and props are in place. But where are the actors? That’s why I intentionally choose plants that attract birds and insects. (Rabbits? Not so much!) A summer day isn’t complete without the buzz of bees, the whirr of the Broad-tailed Hummingbirds, and especially fluttering butterflies—often as colorful as the flowers they visit.
Butterflies come to flowers to feed on nectar. They often choose flowers with flat tops, such as coneflowers, yarrow (Achillea sp.), and zinnias, and I’ve always included all of those. However, like any avid gardener, I’m always looking to add something new, so this year I planted nectar-rich Pincushion Flower (Scabiosa caucasica).
My choice was largely dictated by availability, as the COVID-19 lockdown made it difficult to visit our local nurseries. But it was also motivated by a gorgeous planting I saw last summer at the botanic garden in Steamboat Springs, proving that Scabiosa is an excellent perennial for Colorado gardens. This isn’t a huge surprise when you consider that it’s native to the Caucasus Mountains of central Eurasia, an area with a climate similar to ours.
The 2 to 3 inch flowers do look like pincushions, due to the clump of stamens protruding from their center. The plants bloom from May to mid-summer in shades of pink, white, and lavender-blue. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a sucker for purple and blue flowers, including only enough contrasting colors in my garden to accent those cool shades. I put my newcomers in front of a clump of bright orange butterfly weed, and effect is stunning.
The plants are relatively small, from 8 to 24 inches tall depending on the cultivar, with a spread of only a foot or so. Be sure to buy several so they don’t get overlooked, and place them near the front of your garden. Otherwise, their needs are simple—full sun, “average” water (although they can withstand some drought), and well-drained soil. They withstand harsh winters, being hardy in zones 3 – 8, but don’t do as well in hot, humid climates.
In addition to attracting butterflies, Scabiosa has some other stellar qualities. It’s very low maintenance—remove dead, dried foliage in late winter, and divide overgrown clumps every few years. Some consider the dried flower heads attractive and leave them for winter interest, while others deadhead fading blooms. You can also cut the flowers for bouquets, although if you want to attract butterflies, that defeats the purpose.
Pincushion Flower is touted as rabbit and deer “resistant.” In my experience, the cottontails did some grazing but they didn’t mow down the entire plant (I can’t say the same for my zinnias). We don’t have deer to contend with, so I’ll have to take the experts’ word for that.
One more note. There’s another “Pincushion Flower” in the genus Scabiosa—Scabiosa atropurpurea. It looks quite similar, although the flowers are a burgundy-red that attracts hummingbirds. Also commonly called Mourningbride, it’s an annual it that must be started each spring from seed. The plants require the same conditions as the perennial species. S. atropurpurea is considered invasive in California.
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