Grow Beautiful Container Plants for Bees and Butterflies

I absolutely adore butterflies and moths, so I make the most of every opportunity to grow plants to attract and support these insects.  Every year I trial different plants in containers, searching for plants that are easy to grow and form naturally floriferous, and attractive plants that will delight gardeners and attract bees and butterflies.  One of my top performers is Scabiosa columbaria, one of our native wildflowers that’s also known as the Small Scabious.  Scabiosa columbaria blooms throughout June and July, producing stunning, lilac coloured, pincushion shaped flowers held on slender stems, that radiate out from the plant and gently bob about in the breeze.

Deadhead Small Scabious (Scabiosa columbaria) flowers as soon as they fade to encourage your plant to continue flowering for as long as possible.
This is one of my containers of Small Scabious (Scabiosa columbaria). This planter has a depth of 30cm (1ft). I’d recommend this delightful perennial as a container plant, but only in containers with a minimum depth of 30cm (1ft). My plants are thriving, they’re potted in a mix of garden soil and peat-free compost.

The Small Scabious has a reserved but steady growth habit; it can be grown as a meadow plant but take care to ensure it is not driven out by vigorous grasses.  Small Scabious thrive planted near the front of flower beds; their lilac blooms combine beautifully with peach, yellow, and white flowers.

The Small Scabious’ (Scabiosa columbaria) flowers are a magnet for wide range of bees, hoverflies, butterflies, moths, and other pollinating insects.
Small Scabious (Scabiosa columbaria) plants produce basal leaves that are oval to lanceolate, unlobed or pinnately lobed; as the plant grows it produces upper leaves that are pinnately lobed or pinnate.

This hardy perennial thrives in any moist but well-drained soil, in an area that enjoys full sunshine or partial shade.  Small Scabious will decline in wet or water-logged soils, but if your soil is wet, don’t worry – these plants flourish in containers filled with peat-free compost, mixed with some loamy, silty, or sandy garden soil.  Scabiosa columbaria flowers in June, July, and August.  Plants will flower this summer and come back to bloom next summer, continuing to flower reliably in the years that follow.  Divide congested plants every four or five years, to maintain their vigour.

Scabiosa columbaria is also known as the Small Scabious. This plant will only flourish in a bright and sunny location, planted in moist but well-drained soil or peat-free compost. If your garden is shaded, I have other recommendations for you. If your soil tends to be wetter or heavier, plant the Small Scabious in a container or a raised bed.

Small Scabious have deep tap roots that allow them to withstand drought more successfully than many other meadow plants.  Please remember this when choosing a container for your plants, as Scabiosa columbaria will only flourish in planters than are deep enough to accommodate their roots.  Choose a planter that’s a minimum of 30cm (1ft) tall and measures around 30cm (1ft) in diameter; it’s the depth of the container that’s the important factor.

Small Scabious (Scabiosa columbaria) flowers attract a wide range of insects, including solitary bees, bumble bees, honey bees, butterflies, moths, and hoverflies.
I spotted this female Drone fly (Eristalis tenax) on my Scabiosa columbaria flowers on the 2nd June 2024.

Deadhead Small Scabious flower heads promptly as they fade, to encourage your plant to continue flowering throughout the summer months.  The faded flower heads form handsome globe-shaped seed heads that make a fantastic addition to a vase of flowers or fresh or dried floral arrangements.

The Small Scabious’ faded flowers form handsome, spherical seed heads that make a wonderful addition to dried or fresh flower arrangements.

Last year I grew Small Scabious (Scabiosa columbaria) in two pots either side of my front door.  I observed all kinds of butterflies feasting on these plants’ nectar, notably Red Admirals and Peacocks, but I caught fleeting glimpses of many other butterflies, especially the brown and the white coloured species feasting on Small Scabious nectar.  However despite seeing such high numbers of butterflies I didn’t manage to get out and take a picture.

This year my Small Scabious plants began flowering in the middle of May.  I knew that I wanted to write about Small Scabious and so my husband was very kind and moved one of our pots of Small Scabious nearer our back door and left the other pot by our front door to make it easier for me to take a picture of some of the beautiful butterflies that this darling plant attracts.  Sadly, as you can see from this post, I’ve not seen a single butterfly on our Small Scabious plants this year and I have instead illustrated this post with pictures of Small Scabious flowers with bees and other insects.

I have seen so few butterflies this year.  In my garden, I spotted a number of Orange-tip butterflies and a few Brimstones in April and May.  I’ve also seen a couple of Red Admirals.  I can’t remember seeing many other butterflies.

Small Scabious (Scabiosa columbaria) flowers radiate out from the plant on slender stems. In this picture you can see flower buds in early stages of production alongside fully open flowers.

I hope that brighter, sunnier weather will arrive soon and I hope we’ll all see more butterflies in our gardens and in the countryside, but it’s not just the dismal weather that is affecting butterfly numbers.  Widespread use of pesticides, insecticides, and weedkiller is killing these insects.  Nature now desperately needs our help.  If you see greenfly (aphids), blackfly, or caterpillars on your plants, I want to reassure you that there is absolutely no need to spray your plants.  Please don’t buy a bug or weed killer.  Please don’t spray your plants with soapy water or use anything at all – please leave insects alone.  Blue Tits adore eating aphids and caterpillars.  Birds, lady birds, newts, frogs, hedgehogs, and many other wildlife need to find enough aphids, caterpillars, insects, slugs, and snails to sustain themselves – please help nature and protect our insects – please don’t spray your plants and don’t kill insects.  Thank you.

If you’re interested in growing plants for butterflies, moths, and bees you’ll find more articles on this topic by clicking here.

Butterfly Conservation’s Big Butterfly Count runs from 12th July 2024 until 4th August 2024.  Visit Butterfly Conservation’s website for all the details and a useful butterfly identification guide.

For gardening advice for June, please click here.

To see my plant pages and find information on growing a wide range of plants, including roses, tree, shrubs, vegetables, fruit, herbs, plants for pollinators, sweet peas, houseplants, orchids, and more, please click here.

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