We were delighted this morning to discover a Monarch butterfly in the garden. We hadn’t been visited by one in several years, since the great decline. The Monarchs require Asclepias — milkweed — to thrive (the larvae absorb toxic steroids, called cardenolides, which protect them from predators), and Roundup has been killing all the milkweed. But more and more people in Northern California are, like us, now growing milkweed, and I hope this visit is a sign the butterflies are on the rebound.
Today’s butterfly was particularly interested in the Scabiosa anthemifolia. Though not a California native (it hails from Africa, Europe and Asia), its nectar is popular with all sorts of our local flying critters.
Scabiosas, called pincushion flowers, get their genus name from their use as a folk remedy for scabies. The medicinal use of one type of Scabiosa, called Devil’s Bit, is described in Mrs. Grieve’s Modern Herbal. She advises an “infusion being given in wineglassful doses at frequent intervals” for coughs, fevers and internal inflammation.” The infusion doubles as “a wash to free the head from scurf, sores and dandruff.”
There are many species and cultivars of Scabiosa, and it is difficult to keep them all straight. One almost suspects the vendors like it that way. (Johnny’s has a good selection of seeds.) This one, I think, is Scabiosa anthemifolia, which is sold at Annie’s Annuals and elsewhere. She calls it “One of my faves for long season color in well-drained, low water gardens.” The cultivar seems similar to me to Scabiosa columbaria, “Small Scabious,” as described by the Royal Horticultural Society and others.