Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Scabiosa: Better Than Its Name Sounds

Whether it is pronounced SCAB-ee-oh-sah or SKAY-bee-oh-sah, Scabiosa sounds dreadful and makes me imagine an itch coming on.

When I was a child, head lice and scabies struck fear in the heart of my mom.  Scabies is a skin condition caused by a tiny mite (Sarcoptes scabiei var. hominis) tunneling under the epidermis to lay its eggs.  Head lice and scabies were socially delicate matters in those days and very difficult to eradicate.  Among the many things I was warned to avoid at school and elsewhere, other boys' hats and people with rashes were near the top of the list.

I didn't obey all of her warnings.  I wore a yarmulke (kosher enough I thought) borrowed from Larry so I could join his middle-school entourage, and rassled with a scabious assailant when he wouldn't let go of my leg.  I ran over oyster shells, brushed by poison ivy, boated without a shirt, and explored island hammocks, so I've had my share of wounds, rashes, sunburns, itches and chiggers, but never head lice or scabies.

It's said that Scabiosa was named by Carl Linnaeus because of its traditional use as a treatment for scabies.  Perhaps Scabiosa and other herbs were steeped as tea in a tub of water for bathing, or the rough leaves might have been used to scratch the itch.  I don't know that it actually works for I've never had to use it.

The genus contains from 14 to 80 species (depends on who's counting what) native to Europe, parts of Asia and the Mediterranean region.  However, some have been introduced to North America.  Scabiosa is a member of the Dipsacaceae family.   A common name for it is Pincushion Flower, derived from the appearance of the seed head.

Very few scabiosas are used as ornamental plants.  Most are from the species, S. columbaria (pronounced kol-um-BAR-ee-ah).  Columbaria means "pigeon-like", perhaps because it can be found living in niches on the sides of cliffs in its native habitat.

A cultivar, S. columbaria 'Butterfly Blue' was named Perennial Plant Of The Year in 2000 by the Perennial Plant Association.  Since then its popularity has taken off.  Light blue flowers are produced in mid-summer on mounding plants up to 18" high.  Flowering may be extended through fall if the spent seed heads are removed.  In addition to blue, other cultivars exhibit flowers in pink and white.  Scabiosa is great for naturalizing, growing in perennial gardens, mixed gardens with bulbs and annuals, and in low borders.  Butterflies love it, and birds love the seeds.  It's easy to care for and drought-tolerant when established.

S. columbaria thrives in USDA climate zones 4 through 9 or 10.  Plant in full sun to partial shade.  Average well-drained garden soil with pH ranging from 6.6 to 7.8 is fine.

Before planting, take a sample of your garden soil to your local Cooperative Extension Service office.  They often provide collection bags.  With each soil sample, indicate the type of plant you intend to grow in it.  For the most basic recommendations, you may be charged a nominal fee.  For more information such as micro-nutrient and organic content you may be charged more.

Prepare the planting bed by cultivating at least 8" deep, removing all traces of weeds.  Adjust soil pH according to soil test results.

Your soil sample report will also include fertilizer recommendations.  Following instructions is always a good bet.  A fine all-around practice is to mix 5 tablespoons of 10-10-10 fertilizer and 2 cups of bone meal per ten square feet area.  Repeat the application later in the season if they appear to need a boost, but be careful that fertilizer does not come into direct contact with plant tissue.

Scabiosa is much better than its name sounds.  Plant it in your garden and you'll soon understand why it has become so popular.

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