4 October 2010
Devil's-bit scabious is an attractive perennial herb of damp places and is found in meadows, marshes , woodland rides, stream banks and in grasslands on calcareous or slightly acidic soils. Its pincushion-like, violet-blue flower heads provide an important nectar source for late flying butterflies, bees and hoverflies. Species of scabious were used to treat scabies, and many other afflictions of the skin including sores caused by the bubonic plague. In fact the word scabies comes from the Latin word for scratch. According to folk tales the plant’s panacea properties so angered the devil that he bit off the short black root giving the species its unusual name.
Latin name: Succisa pratensis
Devil’s-bit scabious has suffered a widespread decline since 1950, particularly apparent in the south and east of England and principally due to agricultural improvement of its grassland and heath habitat. Nevertheless it remains a relatively common species visible across lowland and upland England exploiting a variety of low fertility habitats.
Where to see and when:
Devil’s-bit scabious flowers throughout July and October. Look out for it in damp or calcareous grasslands, on heaths in the lowlands and uplands and in open areas in woodlands. Good sites to see it are Dunsdon Farm NNR, Devon, Hog Cliff NNR, Dorset and Finlandrigg Woods NNR, Cumbria.
What’s being done:
Devil’s-bit scabious is the food plant of the larvae of at least two uncommon moths and the marsh fritillary butterfly, recognised as a priority species under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (UKBAP) and protected under the European Habitats and Species Directive. Once widespread the marsh fritillary has declined severely over the last century. The butterfly requires larger, more prominent plants of devil’s-bit scabious or patches of shorter vegetation where the plant is abundant in order to survive. As a consequence efforts to conserve the marsh fritillary in the south west and re-introduce it in Cumbria, following recent local extinction, have concentrated on improving management of devil’s-bit scabious habitat to create the required patchwork of long and short vegetation.
More generally Natural England is working with landowners to re-instate appropriate management regimes on heathland and grassland to benefit other wildflower species and the animals they support.