Dear Readers, I was very happy to find this plant in flower at Walthamstow Wetlands a few weeks ago – it has long been a favourite, but it seems reluctant to appear in my ‘territory’ in East Finchley. It is a plant of rough, grassy places on well-drained soil, which may be the problem locally – our clay soil is heavy enough to make pots out of. I am, however, seeing varieties of scabious in the garden centres hereabouts, and it is a great favourite with the bees and lots of other insects too. Each flowerhead is made up of individual florets, which have four unequal petals, and contain a rich and inviting nectar. It is a member of the teasel family (Dipsacaceae) and the flowers are a very similar colour to those of teasel.
Most of the local names for field scabious refer to the shape of the flower: in Sussex it’s known as ‘grandmother’s pincushion’ and in Somerset it’s ‘gentleman’s pincushion’. The name ‘scabious’ is thought to derive from the same root as ‘scabies’ – the Latin word ‘scabere’, meaning ‘to scratch’. Scabious is thought to have been used as an ointment for skin complaints and for the ‘buboes’ or boils that gave bubonic plague its name. Richard Mabey suggests that the plant might have been thought to have been suitable because of the roughness of the stems, which resembled the skin that it was meant to treat.
In Belgium, a young girl with lots of boyfriends would pick scabious when in bud, give each bud the name of one of her favourites, and would choose her husband by the one that flowered best.
More pleasantly, the plant is also known as ‘gypsy rose’ in many parts of the country.
All of the plants in the genus Knautia are also known as ‘widow flowers’. I have been having a look to see if I can work out why, but so far no luck. Blue flowers have been associated with the devil, at least in Warwickshire, according to some writers, and the devils-bit scabious (Succisa pratensis) got its name because the devil was said to have been so envious of its healing powers that it bit off part of the root. However, the reason for ‘widow flower’ remains a mystery. Do let me know if you have any ideas.
In addition to being a great plant for pollinators, field scabious is also the foodplant for the caterpillars of the rare marsh fritillary (Euphydryas aurinia) (although they prefer devils-bit scabious given a choice) and the narrow-bordered bee hawk-moth (Hemaris tityus). I am astonished at the mimicry of this second insect – it’s only the antennae that give it away at first glance.
Now, as you know I am always interested in eating, so my thoughts now turn to whether field scabious is edible. In an article by Sarah Raven, I read how farmers used to value wild flowers in their fields, because they provided the animals who grazed there with a greater variety of minerals than the grass did – flowers such as field scabious, yarrow and birdsfoot trefoil have deep taproots that draw up nutrients from deeper in the soil. However, I have found no recipes for human consumption, except for this seventeenth century ‘water to digest melancholy’ :
‘Take borage, landbeefe (i.e. bugloss, hart’s tongue, calamint, centurie, scabious, thyme, hop, mugwort, rosemary, the flowers of the tenderest woodbine, of each a like quantitie: distil them and drink the water morning and evening, first and last‘ (from ‘Seventeenth Century English Recipe Books: Cooking, Physic and Chirurgery in the Works of Elizabeth Talbot Grey and Aleitheia Talbot Howard, edited by Elizabeth Spiller)
For those of you who might be wondering (as I was) what the hell chirurgery was, it’s an archaic word for surgery. Anyone undergoing surgery in the seventeenth century would have had to have been made from very stern stuff, what with the lack of anaesthetic and no understanding of germ theory. I well remember hearing someone reading on Radio Four from the memoirs of Fanny Burney, who had a mastectomy for breast cancer in the eighteenth century under these conditions, and it was one of the most harrowing things I’ve ever listened to. Burney survived for another 29 years after the operation, and so it probably saved her life, though how she didn’t die from the shock I’ve no idea. For those of you with strong stomachs, you can read the letter that she subsequently wrote to her sister here.
Scabious is also an ingredient in another seventeenth century recipe, this time from Essex, and to be drunk as a cold remedy. It takes more than thirteen ingredients and a lot of sugar (at this time a very expensive substance) and so I think we can assume that it was out of the reach of ordinary folk, who probably had to continue sniffing and sneezing as they ploughed and harvested.
Finally, field scabious is used in many recipes as a flavouring for the honey-based alcoholic drink mead. I remember Mum and Dad going to a ‘medieval banquet’ and coming back so sloshed that they couldn’t get to Tescos the following morning. It was always blamed on ‘food poisoning’ but I think that, unfamiliar with drinking much, they thought that the sweet drink wasn’t very strong. At last, the truth can be told!
And, of course, a poem. Here is a work from Denise Levertov’s Evening Train, a collection of transcendental verses about her spiritual awakening. I love the way that this poem moves from the notion of the plants as workaday weeds to something that is ‘wise beyond comprehension’.
Sophia’s Flowers (Denise Levertov 1923 – 1997)
Flax, chicory, scabious –
flowers with ugly names,
they grow in waste ground, sidewalk edges,
fumes, grime, trash.
Each kind has a delicate form, distinctive;
it would be pleasant to draw them.
All are a dreamy blue,
a gentle mysterious blue,
wise beyond comprehension.
Photo One by By Darkone – photo taken by Darkone, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23975
Photo Two by CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=250749
Photo Three by By Ivar Leidus – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42533479
Photo Four by By Charles J Sharp – Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=59385557
Photo Five by By M kutera – Own work Marcin Kutera, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17485909