Devil’s-bit Scabious

Noted 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: Amanda Scott

Scientific name: Succisa pratensis

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

Conservation status: Common

What to look for:

  • Family: Teasel (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.

The 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.

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.

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.

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

Published: September 2014
Author: Amanda Scott
Photos: Top – Amanda Scott; lower – Enrico Blasutto, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons