Scabiosa incisa


Dipsacaceae (scabious or teasel family)
Common name:

Scabious incisa

Scabiosa incisa with its large mauve or white flowers must be one of South Africa's prettiest indigenous perennials. Growing in small clumps, the flowerheads stand above the foliage, gently moving with the slightest breeze. On warm summer days, butterflies are often seen on the flowers, for Scabiosa is one of their favourite nectar plants.

White and seedheadsA fast-growing perennial, it forms a number of stems on the ground, which turn slightly woody with age at the base. The finely divided leaves form opposite each other along the lower part of the stems. The older leaves at the bottom of the stem turn brown and fall off as new fresh green leaves are formed. The soft leaves are slightly hairy at the top and bottom. The beautiful flowers are formed on long, naked stems from early spring to the middle of summer (September-December). The straggling stems vary in height but can stand up to 430 mm high with a single flowerhead at the tip. A closer look at a e flower reveals individual flowers that are crowded together to form dense, flattened flowerheads. The looser flowers along the outside have longer petals that form a frilly edge, whereas the flowers in the centre are much smaller and compact to form a tight button effect. After flowering, the seeds are formed in interesting rounded bristleheads, that slowly fall apart as the seeds ripen and are ready to be blown away by the wind.

Scabiosa incisa occurs naturally in the coastal sands from Piketberg to Grahamstown. The best-known locality for Scabiosa incisa is at Bokbaai, a farm along the West Coast, from where one has the most beautiful views of Table Mountain across the bay. Here S. incisa grows in deep sands between the coastal scrub. The winter rainfall along this part of the coast is between 50-300 mm a year. S. incisa from Bokbaai is a particularly big form with large, mauve flowers. A number of other beautiful forms are grown at Kirstenbosch. Scabiosa incisa 'White Carpet' has a smaller white flower which in early summer form a cloud of white above a lush carpet of tight green foliage.

Scabiosa incisa has been known and grown in Europe for a long time. Philip Miller (1691-1771), the head of the Chelsea Physic Garden, described S. incisa in 1768 in the Gardeners Dictionary with the species name incisa, which refers to the deeply incised leaves. The genus name Scabiosa comes from the Latin word scabius referring to scabies, an itching skin disease these plants were said to cure.

Scabiosa colombariaThe Dipsacaceae or scabious family is found in Africa and Asia, but is most abundant in the Mediterranean region. There are 11 genera and 290 species. Two genera are indigenous to southern Africa, Cephalaria and Scabiosa. In South Africa there are nine species of Scabiosa; in total there are 100 species distributed from Africa to Asia. Scabiosa africana is another species often seen in gardens.

In South Africa the widely distributed Scabiosa columbaria (or rice flower) is the wild scabious most commonly used as a traditional medicine by different African tribes, but S. incisa is also used to make a dusting powder and wound lotion. It is, however, mostly valued as a good cut flower and beautiful garden plant.

Growing Scabiosa incisa

Scabiosa incisa is easy to grow and most rewarding, with an abundance of flowers, flowering non-stop from spring to the middle of summer. S. incisa responds well to cultivation, with its main requirement being full sun and well-drained soil. It can survive with very little water during the summer but will produce much lusher growth with a compost mulch and occasional good watering. S. incisa is usually planted in groups to edge the front of beds.

Growing at Kirstenbosch

The combinations for Scabiosa with other plants are limitless, for it can be used with spring annuals, summer perennials or in a fynbos bed as a fast-growing groundcover and colour filler. Simple combinations where restios like Chondropetalum tectorum (thatching reed) form the structure and S. incisa the soft, colourful interest, can be very striking. In a perennial border S. incisa, combined with Vernonia glabra, Geranium multisectum, Agapanthus and Orthosiphon labiatus, forms a lovely show for summer. S. incisa can also be planted with succulents-a striking combination often planted at Kirstenbosch is S. incisa with the grey leaf form of Cotyledon orbiculatum (pig's ears).

Scabiosa incisa can be propagated from seed or cuttings. At Kirstenbosch most of the new plants are propagated from cuttings. The main plantings are done in autumn and winter to give the plants time to establish before flowering starts in spring. S. incisa has no serious pests. Occasionally plants may get plant lice but it is not necessary to spray, for very little damage is done. To keep the plants vigorous they should be pruned back to encourage new growth.


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Liesl van der Walt
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden
December 2003

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