The Devil's bit Scabious

The Devil's bit Scabious

Mors du Diable -Bâton du Diable

in Latin - Succisa pratensis

Once again the cultural histories of France and Britain conjoin in the name of this common plant. The name 'Devil's Bit' has been used in Britain since at least 1450. I imagine that this is also so in France. Possibly the name 'Scabious' was even then attached to it, though the old herbals distinguish between 'Devil's bit' and its close relative the true Scabious of the field. The two species look alike and can be confused. The Scabious gets its name from its herbal remedy of relieving 'the itch' or scabies. The Devil's bit gets its extra name from the appearance of its root! The tap root dies away very soon and looks as though it has been bitten through, supposedly by the Devil envious that such a plant should be useful to mankind. So across medieval Europe the name was spread.

One can distinguish the Devil's bit from the field scabious by the shape of the leaves and in a more detailed way by the flowers. The leaves of the former are usually not divided though sometimes toothed. Its flowers -florets- are crowded into more button like heads without the spreading petals of the Scabious. If you look more closely there are only four petal lobes to each floret, instead of five.

My picture shows a field of Devil's bit within 400 metres of my house. Now it happens that not too far away from these plants I have found in the summer, the Marsh Fritillary butterfly or - 'le Damier de la succise' . The last french word is a recent invention and indicates that the food plant of le Damier is succise , that is to say Succisa, the latin for our Devil's bit! The English word 'marsh' has little meaning here. The butterfly does not particularly live in marshes! The caterpillars of the Fritillary feed on the leaves of the Devil's bit and then at this time of year go into the grass and make a fairly large web of silk and hibernate there. If you search fields where this plant grows you may well find the webs of this and indeed of caterpillars of other Fritillary butterfly species. A little search of apparent spider's webs will reveal the tiny caterpillars. Those people who cut their fields too closely are probably destroying these beautiful insects.

This butterfly is now protected in Britain and is the only butterfly species to receive there special support from the EU. Destruction of flower rich meadows and also over grazing with sheep or cattle has ruined fields in Britain for this butterfly and the populations have fallen by 60% in the last twenty years. Further reference at http://www.butterfly-conservation.org

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