Scabiosa: How to Grow and Care For Pincushion Flowers
Scabiosa is a powerful plant to have in a pollinator garden, and it looks great too! We explain how to grow the pincushion flower yourself.
If you need more bees and butterflies or whimsical plants in your summer garden, consider growing scabiosa! Also known to gardeners as the pincushion flower, this sometimes perennial plant has a dainty look that fits into most landscapes but is also wild enough to be included in wildflower mixes.
Scabiosa blooms will first appear in late spring atop wiry stems. They last through the early summer, and even into early fall until the first frost. Scabiosa plants are drought-tolerant and easy to care for, making them a plant-and-forget option in many areas!
Our guide will tell you everything you need to know about growing a beautiful scabiosa plant in your garden. They’re beautiful as they dot your landscape. They’re resistant to a lot of insects and drought. The bee species and butterflies will thank you for summer food, too!
Quick Care Guide
|Common Name||Scabiosa plants, pincushion flower, sweet scabiosa|
|Scientific Name||Scabiosa atropurpurea, Scabiosa spp.|
|Family||Caprifoliaceae, the honeysuckle family|
|Height & Spread||2-3 feet tall, 9-12 inches wide|
|Light||Full sun, 6+ hours of direct light|
|Soil||Slightly alkaline pH of 6.0-8.0, loamy or sandy|
|Water||Drought-tolerant, water once per week|
|Pests & Diseases||Aphids, botrytis, crown rot, powdery mildew, root rot, slugs, spider mites, whiteflies|
All About Scabiosa
The genus Scabiosa (the botanical name for the pincushion flower) is full of flowers in the honeysuckle family, with several varieties of pincushion flowers that mostly look similar in shape, if not color.
Annual flowers tend to be a bit smaller than perennial varieties, but they all have flat flower heads that attract bees and other pollinators, like hummingbirds and Lepidoptera.
All pincushion species are native to eastern Europe, western Asia, the Mediterranean, and eastern Africa. The wiry stems of scabiosa plants come out in a landscape from a clump of shallow roots. They have thin, rough foliage that gives them the name “scabiosa,” the Latin word for scabies. This refers to the scratchy texture of the leaves!
Most pincushion flower plants can grow in USDA zones 4-9 from spring until the first fall frost, but some, like Scabiosa ‘Butterfly Blue’ and Scabiosa ‘Pink Mist,’ are more tolerant of cold temperatures and can grow in zone 3. Other varieties, like Scabiosa ‘Beaujolais Bonnets,’ can’t get enough summer heat and can grow up to zone 11.
Both annual and perennial varieties of pincushion flowers have white stamens. They can be found in almost any color. Annuals are more commonly purple, pink, and maroon, while perennial varieties are often lavender, blue, and white. Mixing them up in your garden for a little late-spring variety isn’t a bad thing!
Because the bloom period for this flower is so long, it’s a great source of food for pollinators, specifically butterflies. Bees are also very attracted to the blue and lavender varieties. The pincushion flower has a flat shape that makes it easy for bees and butterflies to land on all summer long. These unique shapes and the wiry foliage add interest to the garden.
Because the attractive Scabiosa atropurpurea plants are such adamant self-seeders, they are considered invasive in the state of California. Therefore, if you’re gardening there, you may want to forego planting Scabiosa atropurpurea, although Scabiosa columbaria is quite welcome and often used in its place.
Types of Scabiosa
If you are looking for a pincushion to add to your garden, but you don’t know where to start, we’ve got you covered. Here is a list of a few of the most popular varieties that gardeners love. Remember that those planted in non-native areas could become invasive.
Scabiosa atropurpurea ‘Black Knight’
This pincushion has an interestingly-colored bloom that is a deep maroon to almost black. It’s an annual, self-seeding species that provide a bloom in the garden that butterflies will flock to.
The plant itself grows 2 to 3 feet tall, and supports are needed to keep the stems upright. You can get ‘Black Knight’ seeds at Botanical Interests, one of the few seed companies that carry this variety.
Scabiosa columbaria ‘Butterfly Blue’
The attractive blue petals of this perennial plant are not only butterfly attractants, but they also bring in hummingbirds. It’s slightly smaller than the last variety we covered, at a stature that reaches about 18 inches total. Forget pink! Start planting these blue flowers.
Scabiosa columbaria ‘Flutter Pink Rose’
Ok, maybe don’t forget pink! This perennial dwarf variety brings in all the bee species, butterflies, and hummingbirds too.
Plant these 12-inch tall plants directly in the landscape, or dapple the garden with containers filled with pink pincushions atop slender stems.
Scabiosa atropurpurea ‘Purple Pincushion’
Similar to Butterfly Blue, the light lavender-purple petals of this annual cultivar are perfect for feeding hummingbirds and different types of butterflies.
With long slender stems that need staking from time to time, the attractive pin-head of this Scabiosa atropurpurea cultivar common name comes from its lovely violet-blue petals.
Caring for Scabiosa Plants
Attractive scabiosa is one of the flowering plants that are beginner friendly since they don’t need a whole bunch of TLC to thrive through the summer season to the first frost in fall. Plenty of sun, enough moisture, and low humidity will give you an abundance of pincushion flowers!
Sun and Temperature
Scabiosas love the summer sun, so they’ll need full sun exposure with at least 6 hours of direct sunlight daily. If you’re growing a pincushion flower variety that’s better suited for cooler temperatures, afternoon shade will benefit them. Full sun in a humid climate is important, as they aren’t fans of humidity.
The ideal temperature is 55-65°F, but pincushion flowers are tolerant of hot and cold temperatures in the fall and winter seasons for short periods.
A hot mid-summer day or a chilly spring evening won’t kill them off, but keep an eye on the forecast to ensure the extreme temperatures don’t stick around for too long! Providing a little afternoon shade on the hottest days helps, too.
Scabiosa is sensitive to frost and freezing temperatures in early spring and excessive heat and humidity in early summer and mid-summer. Cool temperatures in the late spring aren’t the worst, though you may find that plants exposed to cold weather early on will flower sooner than those that weren’t.
Water and Humidity
If you’re new to growing scabiosa pincushion flowers, you may find moisture to be a challenge, especially if you’re in a humid climate.
When growing in an area that receives consistent rain in early spring, you likely won’t need to water your flowers unless you’re in a dry spell. If you rarely get rain, watering once per week so they receive one inch of water will be enough to keep your plants happy.
Too much water will increase the likelihood of problems like root rot in this drought-resistant plant and may cause your scabiosa pincushion flower to die back. This is especially true in hot, humid climates. Be sure that your flowers – wherever you live – have well-draining soil to prevent puddles.
Scabiosa pincushion flower grows well in average soil but will look its best when you provide plenty of organic matter to the soil profile. Plant them in a flower garden that has plenty of compost and leaves mixed into the soil for the best results.
Choose soil that is loamy or sandy, and avoid heavy clay soil. The scabiosa genus has shallow root systems that need light soils, so it’s easy for them to grow and receive water. Loose soil is also important for drainage. Avoid potting soils with extra water retention unless you intend to skip watering pretty often.
Scabiosa pincushion flowers like a slightly alkaline soil pH of 6.0-8.0 and are quite tolerant of a neutral pH, so you should be able to plant them almost anywhere.
Fertilizing Scabiosa Pincushion
Scabiosa flowers only need fertilizer if your soil’s health is severely lacking. A fresh layer of compost every now and then should be enough in average soil, but a monthly refresh would be better in poor soils.
You can use an all-purpose or flower fertilizer if you don’t have any compost. Choose a balanced option like a 10-10-10. Liquid fertilizers can be applied once per month, and slow-release fertilizers can be applied once in the spring for early summer blooms.
Pruning Scabiosa Pincushion
The wiry stems of pincushions don’t really need to be pruned, but doing so will help the plant last longer. Remove spent blooms in early fall to promote new growth so you can have flowers all season long.
Since the small flowers are self-seeding, they can potentially become invasive, so remove flowerheads before they go to seed so you can keep your scabiosa population under control. The blooms make great cut flowers; you can use their lavender-blue color to offset bright yellows and oranges.
Perennial types may need to be separated and planted elsewhere every few years to ensure the plants have good airflow and adequate growing conditions. Let’s talk about this more in the next section!
The best way to propagate annual and perennial varieties is through seed germination. You can save seeds to be planted next year, or you can allow the plants to self-seed. Self-seeding is when spent flowerheads drop seeds, and the seeds stay on the ground all winter and germinate in the early spring. Similarly, seeds can be started indoors two weeks before the last frost date.
As mentioned in the last section, you can divide perennial clumps of flowers every 2-4 years in early spring or fall. Replant these clumps in pots, flower beds, rock gardens, or anywhere else to get a brand-new plant that will last you a while!
Not only does this give you new plants, but it also reduces the risk of your existing plants developing diseases due to lack of airflow and crowding.
Pincushion flowers really only give you problems if growing conditions aren’t right, like too much water or not enough full sun. These flowers and foliage are deer-resistant and generally resistant to insects and diseases, making them many gardeners’ favorites.
If your plant has plenty of nutrients, lots of sunshine, and appropriate water levels, but you don’t see many flowers bloom in late spring, you might need to deadhead spent blooms as soon as they die, and you’ll see new growth in no time. These will not produce new flowers on stems that have already flowered, so snip the stem off just above a leaf node to keep your plant tidy.
Scabiosa has long stems that are thin and wiry. Occasionally, you might see them falling over, which means they need to be staked or given some support.
Dry and crunchy stem leaves are usually a sign of underwatering, and yellow or brown foliage and squishy stems are a sign of overwatering. If you stick your finger in the ground and the top 1-2 inches are bone dry, it’s time to water.
Scabiosa may be subjected to the pests your other plants are attracting. Aphids and whiteflies both suck the sap out of plants and can cause your flowers to have yellowing foliage, which start to die. The easiest way to get rid of these is to wash them off with water. You can also use neem oil to suffocate them. Insecticides will work for aphids but aren’t always successful for whiteflies.
Spider mites create fine webbing on your plants. You can find insecticides made for spider mites, or you can wash them off with water.
Slugs and snails eat up scabiosa quickly, so if you notice slug damage, act fast! The most effective way to get rid of them is to pick them off. If you think they’re gross, wear some gloves. Slugs are nocturnal, so wait until it’s dark outside and go slug hunting with a flashlight.
Most diseases are caused by excess moisture, so the best way to prevent them is to space out your plants so they don’t touch and don’t get too much water. Water at the base of the plant and avoid getting the foliage wet. If you’re in a humid climate, give your scabiosa plenty of sunlight to counter all the moisture.
Fungal diseases are most likely what you’ll be dealing with.
Botrytis blight is a grey fungal problem. Early stages of the fungi look greyish, but it can eventually cause tan, translucent patches on leaves. Water at the base of the plant and ensure it has good airflow to prevent Botrytis from forming on the foliage. Prune off infected tissue and treat with a copper fungicide to prevent any spread.
Powdery mildew looks like a white powder on the leaves. Like Botrytis, this is fungal in origin, and similar prevention methods work for this. Neem oil can sometimes eliminate light infections of powdery mildew, but usually removing the infected foliage and treating the rest of the plant with neem oil is more effective. With both this and Botrytis, clean tools and hands between touching diseased material and healthy material to prevent fungal spore spread.
Crown rot and root rot are soil-borne fungal diseases caused by too much water in the soil. Be sure your soil readily drains excess water and that it doesn’t pool up on the surface. Potted plants should have drainage holes, and plants in the ground may benefit from being planted on a slight hill. Allow the soil to dry completely between waterings if you tend to be generous with water, and don’t water your plants if it recently rained.
If you’re worried about fungal diseases, you can use fungicides to prevent them from showing up.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Is scabiosa annual or perennial?
A: The scabiosa genus has some annual and perennial types. Annuals are often slightly smaller in size.
Q: Where is the best place to plant scabiosa?
A: Plant your scabiosa in a sunny location that drains well. USDA zones 4-9 are ideal for these flowers, although some varieties can survive in hotter or cooler climates.
Q: Is scabiosa invasive?
A: Scabiosa can have invasive tendencies if grown in the right climate. Remove flower heads before they go to seed and divide clumps every few years to keep them under control. Thankfully, they’re lovely as cut flowers.
Q: Is scabiosa hard to grow?
A: Scabiosa flowers are easy to grow if you live in a sunny, dry area. They’re harder to care for in humid climates.
Q: Do scabiosa plants spread?
A: Annual scabiosa flowers spread by self-seeding, and perennials spread by self-seeding and growing new clumps.
Q: Should scabiosa be deadheaded?
A: Deadheading spent scabiosa flowers allows your plants to grow even more flowers and extend your growing season. If you want lots of pretty blooms, you should deadhead them! Trim off the flower stem just above a leaf node to promote more flower development.
Q: Do slugs eat scabiosa?
A: Slugs will eat scabiosa. Remove them by hand to control the population. They’re easier to find at night with a flashlight.
Q: What grows well with scabiosa?
A: Scabiosa flowers will look beautiful in any flower garden or in rock gardens. But if you need inspiration, try growing these flowers with daylilies, butterfly weed, salvias, sedum, and roses. It will depend on your other flower colors, so play around with colors to find what suits your landscape.