The Dipsacaceae, or teasel, family contains 11 genera of plants, one of which is the Cephalaria genus. The plants in this genus mostly are coarse herbs that are native to parts of Europe, Africa, and central Asia. In their natural setting, they grow in diverse regions, generally from lowland meadows to mountain pastures. People often call the flowers pincushion flowers because the stamens rise above the rounded flower head like pins in a pincushion. The plants are cultivated for these showy flowers.
The leaves of most Cephalaria are similar. Typically, they grow in opposites on the stem and produce pinnately compound leaves. Many of the leaves are toothed and lanceolate in shape. Usually the flowers appear on leafless stalks.
Cephalaria flowers range from pure white to cream to yellow, with many shades in between. The sunflower-like flowers bloom in a rounded head that usually has several rows of rigid bracts in an involucres, or whorl of bracts, type of structure. The stamens extend above the flower head. Typically, the outer petals are larger than the inner ones.
Generally, gardeners raise some of the species of Cephalaria plants in borders and as cut flowers. The long-stalked flowers usually are easy to use in flower arrangements and last well after being cut. Growers propagate by sowing the seeds and with stem cuttings.
C. gigantea, commonly called giant scabious and yellow scabious, is one of the more popular Cephalaria plants that growers raise. Typically, a mature plant may reach heights of 8 feet (2.5 m) and spread to 2 feet (60 cm) wide. It is a clump-forming, erect bush that may sport up to 16-inch (40-cm) long, pinnate leaf structures. The pale yellow to pure yellow flowers might grow to a width of 1.5 to 2.5 inches (4 to 6 cm) on a thick stalk that rises high above the foliage.
Scabiosa alpine, or C. alpina, is another garden favorite. It is slightly shorter than the giant scabious, averaging about 6 feet (2 m) tall. The elliptic, pinnate leaves may range between 6 to 16 inches (14 to 40 cm) long. The pale yellow flowers often are more than 1.5 inches (3 cm) wide.
The cornfield weed, or C. syriaca, usually is an annual plant that produces globe-like flower heads that often sport pale blue flowers. The C. leucantha generally is a short perennial. It may grow between 4 and 6 feet (about 1.2 to 1.8 m) tall and has white to creamy white blooms. Some of its cultivars have yellow flowers.
For centuries, native herbalists have used Cephalaria plants for medicinal purposes. Herbal remedies often treat fever, relieve pain, and fight infection. Sometimes herbalists use the plant as a muscle or nerve relaxant.