• Pincushion Plants: Surviving Sadistic Botanical Nomenclature

February 14, 2019

Scabiosa atropurpurea. Yikes! Somehow, this ornamental’s botanical name makes its common name seem way less painful. When you actually lay eyes on lovely pincushion plants at any stage of bloom, you're likely to think of all the awesome people you knew whose awful parents got carried away when they filled out their birth record forms.

Did you know that the New Zealand Department of Internal Affairs reserves the right to approve or reject a child's legal name? The Kiwis aren't the only ones; Iceland also has naming laws in place. Now, we at Seed Needs would normally think this to be an egregious assault on individual freedoms, but when a darling, innocent little flower like this one has a name that sounds like "scabby, atrophied, putrid pincushion," you're more likely to think of a road-killed hedgehog than a show-stopping garden ornamental. How could any plant (or kid) succeed in life with such a social handicap?

Maybe we need to chill out a little. At least "pincushion" isn't all that bad. Pincushions are sewing accessories, after all, and there's nothing more wholesome than Grandma's little, stuffed tomato with all the brightly-colored pins sticking out in every direction. It's the stand-out pinheads that inspired the pincushion plant's common name; S. atropurpurea has protruding stamens and anthers that often contrast sharply with its petals, and the shape of the flower itself resembles a dainty little tuffet.

So yeah. Think of cute crafty stuff. And definitely, do NOT think of all the times your meemaw spiked you in the ankles while she was hemming your jeans.

Pincushions in the garden: Judge them by their looks!

    S. atropurpurea are compact plants, typically growing between 18" to 20" tall and 8" to 12" wide. They have blue-green, deeply-lobed foliage that's dense at the branching base and sparse along its several graceful, wiry flower stems.

      "Dynamic" is a tired word, but it's well-suited to pincushion's two-inch-wide, slightly-domed flowers. As early as May they produce tight bud clusters, and as the individual florets unfurl, they take on new, exciting patterns and textures. At their prime, pincushion flowers look like frilly puffballs; once the bloom has concluded (typically as late as the first killing frost), the papery flower calyxes remain in a cattail-like bundle. Both fresh and dried pincushion flowers make excellent floral arrangement accents. Pincushions bloom throughout the season, and they're most interesting when multiple flower heads are displaying various phases of their development.

      Since the bulk of the plant is in its lower half, we recommend using pincushions as foreground plants along walkways and borders. Their upright, bushy growth makes them excellent "stand-alone" plants in rock gardens or containers, but they do just as well in clusters and mass-plantings. Pincushion flowers are rich with nectar, emitting a candy-sweet aroma. (We've heard the fragrance compared to marshmallow Peeps). They're absolutely irresistible to pollinating insects and even attract the occasional hummingbird.

      While not being indigenous to the New World, they fit in well with poppies and wildflower mixes. They also share the same environmental preferences as fringed pinks and sweet Williams.

      We'll get to the genus name in a little bit, but atropurpurea translates as "dark purple," referring to the flagship pincushion variety having deep burgundy petals and bright white "pinhead" anthers. There are also pink, white, blue, and lilac varieties. Our pincushion mixture has them all!

      High drama, low-maintenance ornamentals

      Pincushion's beauty contradicts its ugly name, but let's not fall into that old trap of believing pretty can't be tough. Scabiosa atropurpurea is a fairly hardy plant that requires little care. While S. atropurpurea is technically classified as an herbaceous perennial, it rarely behaves as one outside USDA Hardiness Zone 11. It grows as an annual anywhere else, and that's how you'll see it listed in many gardening guides.

      • Sunlight preferences: Pincushions prefer full sun, but do well in part shade. Provide them with at least 3 hours of direct sunlight.
      • Watering requirements: They can handle a bit of drought, but regular watering produces the best foliage and blooms.
      • Soil quality: Pincushion plants require fertile, well-drained soil with a pH between 6.0 and 7.5 (slightly alkaline).
      • Pests and diseases: Not particularly prone to infestations, but crown rot may be a problem in wet soils.

      Deadheading your pincushions encourages new blooms, but if you let them self-sow, you'll have new plants next year. We prefer to leave them be since we like the way the drying seed heads look once the petals have fallen away. If you're in a warmer climate, though, they might get out of hand.

      Pincushions in floral design

      These are lovely, long-lived fresh-cut flowers, holding up for as long as three weeks. Be sure to pick pincushion flowers at different stages of their development for the most interesting textures, shades, and colors. Trim the long stems close to the base of the plant, and immediately immerse the ends in lukewarm water; you'll want to cut them again under running water before placing them in the final vessel.

      Dried pincushions may not be as colorful as when they're fresh-cut, but their seed heads are lovely and look great in fall-themed arrangements. We Michiganders think they look a lot like sand-colored Petoskey stones! Allow them to dry on the plant as long as possible, or suspend the seed heads upside-down in a dry, well-ventilated room until they're thoroughly dried.

      If you're looking for floral design or landscaping ideas, be sure to search using pincushion's various common names. "Scabious" is a good start; while you might get hits on different species, most are interchangeable in any setting.

      Native range, history, and medicinal uses

      Pincushion plants belong to the Dipsacaceae (teasel) subfamily within the greater Caprifoliaceae (honeysuckle) clan. It's native to southern Europe, North Africa, and western Asia. Here in the United States, it's easily naturalized in coastal grassland biomes, particularly in Texas, California, Oregon, and Washington. Pincushion, as well as a few similar species, are known as "sweet scabious," "mourning bride," and "Egyptian rose." (The last one's pretty nice, at least.) Grown as an ornamental in Europe since the 1620s, S. atropurpurea came to North America with the colonists. Back in England, it was a favorite Victorian-era garden specimen.

      Let's revisit pincushion's name, shall we? Scabiosa is a reference to the genus' purported reputation as an herbal treatment for skin disorders. Some sources claim the plant was used to treat scabies—a rash caused by tiny burrowing insects—but as it happens, "scabies" is also the Greek word for leprosy, so that may be the original purpose for medicinal washes made from this plant.

      Knautia arvensis, also commonly called "field scabious," is likely the species most used for treating skin ailments. In spite of having a different generic name, both plants are very nearly identical and are close cousins. The venerable botanist Carl Linnaeus got dibs on assigning both plants their scientific names; Knautia is said to honor of German botanist Dr. Christian (Christian) Knaut (1638-1694). But we can't help but wonder if "honor" was Uncle Carl's true intent.

      Growing pincushion from seed

      Scabiosa atropurpurea is easy to grow from scratch. You can direct-sow them, or give them a head start indoors. If you do the latter, we recommend starting them in tall peat pots to accommodate their long taproots. Use a quality seedling mix for indoor starts, and prepare your outdoor beds by working well-rotted compost into the top six inches of the soil.

      • Seed treatment: None required.
      • Plant indoors: Start your seeds 4 to 10 weeks before your last frost.
      • Plant outdoors: Sow seeds outside as soon as possible after your last frost. Avoid rain-soaked soils.
      • Planting depth: 1/8"; pincushion seeds need a little sunlight to germinate.
      • Plant spacing: Plant, thin, or transplant 4" to 8" apart.
      • Days to germination: S. atropurpurea usually emerge in 10 to 14 days at 65°F to 70°F, but they can take as long as three weeks.

      The sooner you can start your pincushions, the longer you'll enjoy their blooms. When growing pincushion from seed, it typically takes 10 to 12 weeks to flower once they've germinated, but remember that the attractive bud phase begins much sooner than that.

      Pincushion plants are not prone to transplanting shock, but we like to ease the transition from a container to bed by scoring and pre-soaking their biodegradable seedling pots before setting them in moistened prepared beds. And, of course, you'll want to keep your pincushions well-watered until they've established themselves.

      Pick Seed Needs for your garden's success!

      We got our start in 2006, and since then we've grown our online-only catalog with the help of loyal customers like yourself. We hand-package and inspect every order, and we stand by our products. Have a problem? Let us know! Do you want us to carry a particular variety? We'll see what we can do! We won't sell a seed species if we can't vouch for its source. We only offer non-GMO varieties that thrive without reliance on pesticides and chemical pathogen control, and it's part of our mission to do business with ethical, fair-trade, fair-labor seed farmers.

      Picking scabs is a no-no. Picking your pincushion flower seeds from our online catalog is absolutely the right thing to do if you want the best germination rates and plant vigor. We source our seeds fresh each year from trusted producers who've cultivated vibrant, disease-resistant genetic stock. We only order what we expect to sell in a single season, and when they're gone, they're gone...and our Scabiosa atropurpurea seeds are bound to go fast! Contact us if you'd like to learn more, or if you have questions about any of our popular old-school ornamentals.


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