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Giant Scabious, Wildlife Friendly Architectural Plant

Giant Scabious, Cephalaria gigantea, is a wonderful plant for your herbaceous border. It is one of my favourite herbaceous perennials for all sorts of reasons, including its fascinatingly detailed tight buds and sheer exuberance once the plant gets going and growing.

However I recommend it in planting designs for clients as it ticks so many of the gardener’s boxes! For example, it manages to be: –

  • Wildlife friendly
  • Architectural
  • Rabbit proof
  • Easy maintenance
  • Frost hardy to minus 20

Giant Scabious – Plant Facts

The Giant Scabious, also known as giant pincushion flower, is not strictly speaking a scabious although they are related. Both are members of the Caprifoliaceae or honeysuckle family. Its botanical Latin name is Cephalaria gigantea, and synonyms include Cephalaria caucasica, Tatarian Cephalaria and Scabiosa gigantea.

Cephalaria, the Genus name, comes from the Greek word ‘kephale’ meaning head, as in the flower head. Gigantea describes not the flower size but the overall height and breadth of this herbaceous perennial. A clump can easily grow to 2.5 metres high after a few years with favourable conditions.
The plant’s natural habitat is the open meadows and mountain pastures of the Caucasus and Siberia. Hence it is frost hardy down to about minus 20 degrees.

The young foliage is a particularly attractive lime green, but all the leaves are dissected. The plant forms a basal clump of leaves from which the flower stalks sprout. The flowers are a delicate buttermilk yellow and are much loved by pollinating insects. The stiff, branching stems have a single flower at the end of each stem.

Happy in most soil types, it needs a rich fairly moist soil in order to hold up those tall flower stalks. It needs some direct sunlight but I have seen it grow and flower happily in both full sun and partial sun.

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Giant Scabious – Easy Maintenance

As a herbaceous perennial, if you’ve got the soil and the position in the garden right, your
Cephalaria gigantea will largely look after itself. However, there are a few simple, quick tasks which will give you a longer season of pleasure from this statuesque beauty.

  • Cut off spent flowerheads before they run to seed to encourage more bloom and prolong the flowering season.
  • With more mature plants, you can cut back say a third of the growth (or 1 in 3 of your plants if you have multiple). This technique, colloquially known as the Chelsea chop, being carried out at the time of RHS Chelsea Flower Show, gives you flowers over a longer period.
  • As the season progresses, you can cut off the older, larger leaves as they can become scruffy. This will also give you a bit more space in the border.
  • Towards the end of the flowering period, I leave the seed heads on as they are ornamental (although less so then the buds).
  • When the seed heads are looking tatty in late summer, or if you don’t want to allow seed heads, cut low down at the base of the flowering stem.
  • Any untidy foliage may be removed in autumn or in early spring when growth starts anew.

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Giant Scabious – Rabbits and Bees

Wildlife friendly – bees, butterflies, hoverflies and other pollinating insects all love the flowers. Garden birds will eat the seeds if you leave the seed heads on at the end of the summer.
I’ve also found that this is a spider friendly plant too. And the early morning sight of dew covered gossamer webs stretching from one branching stem to another is a delight!

Do you have problems with rabbits eating your garden flowers? Well these ones are rabbit proof – and not just because of the height, although that obviously helps!
Other garden pests, such as deer, aren’t keen on taking a nibble either. Which is useful, although not guaranteed. The flowers are only lightly scented and it usually requires a stronger perfume to put deer off.

Occasionally you may find some caterpillar damage on the leaves. However, its not usually enough to be detrimental either for the plant or for your visual pleasure.

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Giant Scabious and Garden Styles

Although Cephalaria forms large foliage clumps, because the height is from the wiry flower stems the plant does not necessarily feel overpowering in smaller gardens or in the middle of a border. Both the flowers and foliage are architectural, so it makes a stunning plant.

There is an informality of form which suits both cottage garden style planting and prairie planting.

Cottage garden planting may be informal and relaxed, with plants spilling over paths. Or it may have low hedges of lavender, thyme or box. A group of Giant scabious in a border edged with a low herb hedge of golden thyme, underplanted with yellow flowered spring bulbs would give you a long season of interest. A crab apple tree – a traditional fruit tree in a cottage garden, say Malus ‘Golden hornet’, would make it into an ornamental edible border.

Prairie style planting and informal meadow style planting benefit from the inclusion of some taller perennials. Considering the semi screening effect of tall, but not solid plants, it would present an extra burst of height among herbaceous perennials like Verbena bonariensis. The foliage is more attractive than that of another tall, yellow flowered herbaceous perennial, Helianthemum. But the two together would give you a long season of flower. Potentially from late May through to early October.

Wildlife gardens are another obvious place for the Giant scabious as we’ve seen. And as no parts of the plants are toxic to children or pets, it makes a good feature for herbaceous borders in family gardens and pet friendly gardens.

All in all, a plant to consider for your garden…unless all you have is a small balcony.

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If you’d like a garden designed with Giant Scabious and other plants to make it friendly to wildlife, children and pets, why not get in touch?


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