A collaboration of coast and countryside organisations on The Lizard Peninsula

Devil's-bit ScabiousNoted for being the larval food plant of the nationally rare Marsh Fritillary butterfly, Devil’s-bit Scabious is lovely in its own right. You can find it flowering on Mullion Cliffs in late summer into autumn. 
Photo: Steve Townsend

 

DEVIL’S-BIT SCABIOUS

Scientific name: Succisa pratensis

Other common names: Devil’s Button, Blue Button, Woolly Hardhead

Conservation status: Common

What to look for:

  • Family: Teasel family (Dipsacaceae).
  • Flowers: Round flower heads about 2 cm wide, composed of purple-violet four-lobed florets.
  • Leaves: Opposite, lanceolate, hairy, basal leaves are wider than those on the stem.
  • Height: Up to 1m.
  • Where: Damper ground in grasslands, meadows, woods, heathland.
  • When: Flowers from July to October.
  • Habit: Upright.
  • Similar to: Sheep’s-bit, which is superficially similar, but in a different plant family altogether, and is a paler blue. In the same family, Field Scabious and Small Scabious have five-lobed florets.

Devil's-bit ScabiousThe name scabious is used in the name of a handful of wildflower species in the teasel family, but it can also, when used as an adjective, mean ‘affected with mange; scabby’.

How did such a pretty group of plants get themselves associated with skin diseases? Scabious species were in fact once used to treat conditions such as scabies and skin sores, and the name stuck with the plants.

It gets worse for Devil’s-bit Scabious. The name is a reference to the short stubby roots of the plant, which in folklore were believed to have been bitten off by the devil, annoyed by the use of the plant to treat ailments he would have preferred humans to suffer from without relief.

In defiance of its name, Devil’s-bit Scabious, bobbing its delicately pretty violet flower heads by streams, on heathland and in woodland glades and meadows, is a beautiful sight. It has a preference for damp habitats, but will grow in dryer places as well. It is unfussy, equally happy in sun or shade, or in calcareous or acid soils.

Devil's-bit Scabious

It’s not just humans that find Devil’s-bit Scabious attractive. Not only do butterflies, moths and bees flock to take its nectar, it is also the main larval foodplant of the Marsh Fritillary butterfly, a threatened species in the UK and Europe, and which is fully protected under UK legislation. The caterpillars live communally, spinning a protective web across the leaves of the plant: these can be seen in the autumn. Caterpillars of the Narrow-bordered Bee Hawk-moth, another rare species, also eat Devil’s-bit Scabious.  

Marsh Fritillary (copyright: Frank Johns)

Marsh Fritillary

(photograph: Frank Johns)

Marsh Fritillary larval web

(photograph: Steve Townsend)

 Did you know…?

…Devil’s-bit Scabious is recorded from damp meadows as far back as the interglacial named the Pastonian Stage (approximately 800 to 600 thousand years ago).

…If you pick Devil’s-bit Scabious, the devil will arrive at your bedside that very night - or so Cornish legend says.

More information and references:

Baker, M., 1996. Discovering the Folklore of Plants (third edition). Shire Publications, Buckinghamshire.

Bates, R. and Scolding, B., 2002. Wild Flowers of the Lizard. Cornwall County Council, Cornwall.

Grigson, G., 1955. The Englishman’s Flora. J. M. Dent & Sons, London.

Peterken, G., 2013. Meadows. British Wildlife Publishing Ltd., Dorset.

Rose, F. and O’Reilly, C., 2006. The Wild Flower Key, 2nd edition. Frederick Warne, London.

Stace, C., 2010. New Flora of the British Isles, 3rd edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Websites:

Plantlife: http://www.plantlife.org.uk/wild_plants/plant_species/devils-bit

Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Succisa_pratensis

Wildlife Trusts: http://www.wildlifetrusts.org/species/devils-bit-scabious

Published: September 2014
Author: Amanda Scott
Photos: Steve Townsend (Devil’s-bit Scabious in heathland; Marsh Fritillary web); Frank Johns (Marsh Fritillary butterfly); Amanda Scott (close-up of Devil’s-bit Scabious flower)

Click here for information about other plant species you can see on the Lizard.