field scabious



field scabious defined in 1912 year

field scabious - Field Scabious (Knautia arvensis);
field scabious - The sweet and gentle Scabious, . . . discreet, aristocratically poor, and modestly beautiful as her title, that of a mist-veiled precious stone, proclaims." This is a translation of a description written by Maurice Maeterlinck, and it is indeed strange that we have to go outside our own writers and our own language to find both a eulogy and a worthy name for this plant. It is difficult to understand why its blossoms - large, handsome, and of the most charming and delicate lilac-blue colour though they are - have yet never established themselves on those terms of affectionate intimacy with us in England which many another less beautiful flower has done, but the fact remains that, like certain neutral personages among our acquaintances, it has evoked no enthusiasms, it is enshrined in no familiar legends, and it knows nothing of those homely pet names that children and country folk bestow upon the plants they love.

Nevertheless, it has many points of interest about it. Like the daisy, it has learned the value of co-operation, though it does not specialise in it to the same extent. Its blooms are composed of some fifty little flowers all massed together, but each flower keeps somewhat more of its own individuality and is less subordinated to the community than is the daisy; moreover, there is nothing of the dense packing so characteristic of the Composite flowers.

Each floret has a lilac-blue four-lobed corolla formed of four united petals, one lobe being larger than the rest, but the corollas vary in size a good deal, those on the outside of the bloom being longer and larger generally than those more centrally situated. Hence, as each head of flowers provides a copious supply of honey in its depths, it can, and does, hospitably entertain insects of all kinds, some with long and some with short probosces. There is, however, one insect - Andrena Nattorfiana - which never visits any other flower but this Scabious; he is quite satisfied with what it offers, and never attempts to leave it for other attractions.

If we probe into a floret we see that in each there are four stamens all standing apart (one there originally has disappeared). Their anthers are set see-saw fashion on the end of their filaments, so that they move at the slightest touch. Slowly, one by one, each anther ripens and opens, and on its upper surface the mauve pollen grains can be distinctly seen lying. The stamens in the outer florets open first, and the movement gradually spreads inwards. All this time - it may be several days - the bloom is entirely given over to the production and outpouring of pollen, and as the honey supply seems unlimited, many visits may meanwhile be received from insects. At length, however, all the stamens have ripened and emptied out their pollen, and then, and not till then, does the condition of the bloom undergo a complete change. Suddenly, as if by some prearranged signal, all the styles lengthen together and open their stigmas; thus from being wholly male in character it has become wholly female. A single insect now visiting from another flower, in crawling over the bloom, will probably touch with pollen dust the greater number of the florets. It has taken many visitors some time to carry away the pollen, but it requires only one for a few minutes to effect its complete fertilisation. But it is obvious that as some of its own pollen is still lying on the see-sawing anthers an insect in moving about the flower will mix the pollen it brings with that already present, and thus fertilisation will be due to pollen from adjacent florets as well as to pollen brought from neighbouring blooms or neighbouring plants. In any case self-fertilisation is excluded.

Curiously enough not all the blooms are made up of perfect flowers; in some the stamens are only represented by rudimentary growths, relics of a bygone time, and there are no anthers and no pollen. In these cases it is obviously impossible for there to be anything but cross-fertilisation from other, more perfect, flowers.

As the anthers are so lightly attached, they tend to drop off before the flowers show signs of fading, and when eventually the petals wither and fall they have to carry the remnants of the stamens with them. The green calyx at the base of each flower, up to now entirely insignificant, grows out into a number of comparatively long, stiff points, so that the soft lilac-blue bloom of some fifty florets is replaced by a rounded head of bristling green, composed of the same number of egg-shaped seed-cases, each containing a seed and bearing a spiky crown; no doubt these spiky crowns eventually help in the better dispersal of the seeds. The whole is framed by a ring of thick, pointed leaves which were previously almost hidden by the flowers, and which served in the days of honey as a most efficient barrier to insect thieves who might wish to creep up the stem and steal the sweets. Even the stoutest of bees could not pierce this leathery sheath.

There is a curious idiosyncrasy to be noticed in the flowers. If they are placed in an atmosphere of strong tobacco smoke their colour changes from lilac-blue to peacock-green; for the moment they seem uninjured, but after a short interval the petals suddenly wither completely away.

The whole plant is covered with coarsish hairs, and the leaves are rough and unattractive, and often cut into tooth-like segments. They arise in pairs down the stalk, and though the lower ones are sometimes stalked, the upper ones have no stalks and their blades meet across the main stem, creating a ledge and faintly foreshadowing those wonderful cups that are formed round the stem by the leaf-pairs in its near relative, the teazle. It is these cups, always full of water, that have caused the whole family to be known as the Dipsace├Že - i.e. thirsty.

The name Knautia is in memory of a German botanist, a Dr. Knaut, who lived at Hall, in the seventeenth century. The plant is also sometimes known as Scabiosa arvensis. The name Scabious takes us far from the suggestion of the "mist-veiled precious stone" with which we started, for it is supposed to be connected with the word "scab" - a scaly sore. Gerard tells us, "The plant gendereth scabs, if the decoction thereof be drunke certain daies and the juice used in ointments." We are further told that this "juice being drunke procureth sweat, especially with Treacle . . . and attenuateth and maketh thin." Hence it was formerly resorted to by those who wished that "this too too solid flesh would melt" into a more graceful and elegant figure.

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