Species of the Month - September 2016: Devil's-bit scabious

Field of devil's-bit scabious (image: Amy Lewis)

This year, Herefordshire Wildlife Trust is running a new series taking a closer look at one key species of flora or fauna each month. For September, we are looking at devil's-bit scabious…

Devil's-bit scabious (Succisa pratensis)

Image: Amy LewisDevil's-bit scabious has flattened, rounded flower heads which range in colour from blue to pinky-purple. Its leaves are long and oval, reaching 30-60cm in height. Male and female flowers are produced on different heads, the female being smaller.

Devil’s-bit scabious has been used as a dye, a seasoning, tea, and also medicinally to treat scabies, eczema, fever, weeping wounds, and even syphilis and plague. The word scabies comes from the Latin word for "scratch" (scabere). In folk tales, the short black root was bitten off by the devil, angry at the plant's ability to cure.

The flowers, which appear from June to September, are visited by various types of insects, but especially frequently by hoverflies of the genus Eristalis. It’s a good source of nectar and is the main source of food for the marsh fritillary butterfly, whose eggs are laid in groups on the underside of the plant, and the narrow-bordered bee hawk-moth.

Where to see it

The plant can be found in damp meadows and marshes, and along woodland rides and riverbanks. It’s distributed throughout the British Isles, western and central Europe, extending eastwards into central Asia. It has been introduced to eastern North America. It is closely related to the field scabious (Knautia arvensis), although the plants are rarely seen growing together - while field scabious likes dry sand and moraines, devil’s-bit scabious favours clay.

How to help devil’s-bit scabious to thrive

Image: Ian YennIf you’re a landowner, a meadow which is an uneven patchwork of short and long vegetation (8-25 cm) would best suit devil’s-bit scabious. This can be achieved through low intensity grazing using cattle.

Devil’s-bit scabious is usually found in wet meadows, but it can be grown in a garden that has damp to reasonably free-draining soils. It grows best when more dominant species are held in check, either through grazing pressure or low fertility, and in cooler positions within the garden. Seeds should be sown in autumn.

The Wildlife Trusts recognise the importance of healthy habitats to support all kinds of species throughout the food chain, so supporting your local wildlife trust will in turn help protect this species.

Get in touch

If you spot devil’s-bit scabious – or any other species - please do let us know! You can submit records online at www.herefordshirewt.org, email them to us at records@herefordshirewt.co.uk or write to us at Lower House Farm, Ledbury Road, Hereford, HR1 1UT.

Image: Ian Yenn