Jane is a naturalist, photographer and nature writer living in Dorset. Her work has appeared in books, anthologies and blogs for charities such as The Wildlife Trusts and the International Bee Research Association. When she’s not exploring Dorset’s lanes and countryside she can be found lying on her stomach watching insects in her garden. Jane’s entry for this blog’s Lockdown Nature-writing challenge was shortlisted and can be found by clicking here. Jane is currently studying for an MA in Travel and Nature Writing at Bath Spa University and can be found: www.janevadams.com and on Twitter @WildlifeStuff
On the basis of Jane’s entry in the Lockdown Nature-writing Challenge, and a couple of guest blogs she has written for this site since (Weevils and Wool-carder Bee) I have persuaded Jane to write a monthly article to appear on the last Saturday of the month. June’s article was on Stag Beetles, July’s was about her unmown lawn and lockdown, and here is August’s…
When I was six I contracted scabies. Itchy red scabs appeared on my hands and face as the microscopic scabies mites burrowed their way into my skin and laid their eggs.
It’s not a condition you hear much about these days, but I’ve often wondered if my early brush with the Sarcoptes scabiei mite prompted a subconscious fascination with scabious; I’ve loved Devil’s-bit scabious for as long as I can remember.
Until recently I had no idea there was even a link between scabies and scabious, but it seems scabious comes from the Latin scabere, meaning ‘to scratch’, and the root of the scabious plant has been used medicinally since the Middle Ages to relieve the scabies itch.
If only we’d known that in our dreary Eastbourne B&B in 1970. Instead, I was whipped off to a local GP who prescribed a slimy grey ointment. Mum was horrified and embarrassed at the diagnosis. At the time the condition was still linked, wrongly as it turns out, to bad hygiene, poverty and overcrowding. Dad, on the other hand, thought it was hilarious and shouted “unclean! unclean!” if I got anywhere near him.
In my forties I moved to a house a stone’s throw from the lowland heaths of Dorset, and found myself with a grass-depleted lawn. I decided to turn it into a wild flower meadow. Being a hopeless, but optimistic, botanist and an even more hopeless gardener, the wild flowers I tried to grow were cringingly unsuitable for the acidic, free draining soil, but one plant did flourish; Devil’s-bit scabious.
Ten years on and that patch of grass is now a haze of bobbing blue-mauve flowers attracting pollinators into the garden from August right through to October.
Common carder bumblebees are by far the most frequent, and most numerous, of the insect visitors. Earlier this week Storm Francis blew through the garden tying trees into knots and flattening flowerbeds. But the tenacious Common carder workers and newly hatched queens still bounced nonchalantly from pin-cushion to pin-cushion bloom in fifty mile per hour winds. How do they do that?
On a sunnier day I sat beside the bees to time their visits. Each flower received eleven seconds of tongue-prodding before the bee flew to a neighbouring bloom and started its hurried head banging again. It’s frantic, and not at all soothing when you’re watching it close-up.
Butterflies, on the other hand, are far more laid back, Common blues and Gatekeepers open and close their wings lazily in the late summer sunshine, and the repositioning of their proboscises into each flower seems awkwardly slow but expertly precise. Some look tired and weather-worn, but content to see out their final days in this nectar nirvana.
So why the name Devil’s-bit scabious? Legend has it that after growing angry with the medicinal properties of this humble plant, the Devil bit off its roots to steal its healing powers. That’s fine. I’m not planning on contracting scabies again, but I might encourage a few more seeds to fall, just to add to next year’s seed bank.