The Field Scabious are high summer flowers. Hovering, lilac-blue and dusk-luminous once the meadows turn tawny. They arrive as the heat comes into July and hold well into August, the month of wild carrot and twisting bindweed. A time of dark greens, pale fields and ripening as the energy shifts towards berry and seed.
I step a number of cultivated scabious into the garden as the first round of summer perennials pass and begin to change the tone to maintain vitality and provide a succession of forage for pollinators in August. We are lucky enough here to have room to allow them to repeat and the original plantings of Scabiosa ochroleuca have migrated along the paths where they are happiest on the edge of things. I leave the seedlings where there is room, their filigree foliage being distinctive and easy to winkle out if they look like they might overwhelm their chosen company. When happy, a seedling can make flower in the first year and go on to be in their prime in the second and third. Though they will live longer, the older a plant becomes, the more it is prone to splay and showing its middle, so I keep them on rotation, removing the eldest and editing the seedlings so that I look like I rule the roost and they don’t.
Sometimes the seedlings appear unexpectedly in a position or in company you would never have planned for. The palest yellow pincushions are held aloft in an open cage and their airy spontaneity is as good with acid green Euphorbia ceratocarpa as it is with the salmon pink of Potentilla hoopwoodiana. They prefer not to be overshadowed and that is where the Giant Scabious comes into play deeper into the beds where I want to repeat the feeling of creaminess, speckled. Though initially similar in flower, Cephalaria dipsacoides is altogether more reaching. Its cousin forms a rounded mound of about 75cm, the cephalaria soars vertically to two metres.
I first started using Cephalaria dipsacoides in our Peckham garden, because it takes a fraction of the space of the June flowering Cephalaria gigantea. This truly giant scabious is magnificent given space, but one plant alone will easily leave a metre round gap once it is over. All its energy is done with this great exertion and typical of many plants that use the first half of summer to perform, they are best cut to the base to re-foliate and not feel sad right about now. Lupins, alchemilla and the likes of early flowering geraniums all fall into this camp.
Cephalaria dipsacoides takes no more than a foot at ground level and is nimble in growth as it rises to flower in August, when freshness is often needed. Such elegance and ease comes at a cost. If I leave it to seed here, its pioneering nature shows itself in a thousand seedlings, each capable of seeding into the crown of a slower growing plant and sending down a fast taproot and making a serious dent in a season. Monitoring the seedheads, which are beautiful in themselves and would be lovely to leave in a wilder corner, is best in a border and I cut the whole plants to the base before they seed. It is a chore, for you need to be nimble to make your way into the beds without damage, but it is the secret to not falling out with it here.
Down in the barn garden in the free draining rubble around the old buildings, Cephalaria transylvanica is allowed to seed at will. This area is set aside for plants with pioneering behaviours and, to a point, is a part of the garden where I experiment and let the plants lead the way after a hard edit of seedlings in February. An original plant of this beautiful blue scabious came from Derry Watkins of Special Plants. She in turn collected it from ‘a crack in the sidewalk’ in Bulgaria. Try to research this beautiful biennial and you will not discover much more than it is an arable weed in Eastern Europe. This is why it is content to seed around here in poor rubbly ground and in an area that I never water on principle.
Although it is in the company of other biennials such as Miss Willmott’s Ghost, Cephalaria transylvanica (main image) naturally seeds to the edge of the planting. Autumn germinated seedlings need the open conditions of an arable field over winter to build up their strength for a quick race for the skies in summer. Seedlings that appear deeper into the planting are always there when I clear the skeletons around them in late winter, but they never have the strength of those on the edge to push their way through. My guess would be that I should open up the odd hole in the planting in the autumn as if an animal had been in rootling around and they would seize the opportunity like a proper weed.
Being pioneers and having a short life, they race and soar and flutter, leaving a neat rosette of foliage at ground level and reaching to the light to shoulder height or more. I will work my way around them if they seed into the path, because they feel like one of those plants that you suddenly lose for being too strict or orderly about how you run a garden. I’m very happy to tolerate a gentle seeder with such poise and magnetic attraction to butterflies if they find their niche and help to make August the month that it is.
Words: Dan Pearson | Photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 6 August 2022