Why I’m addicted to these exotic giants
You may not have heard of them, or recognise them, but if you’re a fan of the exotic, dramatic and downright tall, you can’t beat the Echium family.
Our native variety, E. vulgare, also known as viper’s bugloss, is a bristly biennial to 75cm, with lance-shaped, hairy leaves and cylindrical spikes of bell-shaped violet-blue flowers in early summer that bees love.
Although a great plant, I’m a massive fan of its bigger brothers and sisters, mostly natives of the Canary Islands.
Don’t let this put you off – I’ve grown them from seed (easy) for the past few years and they have survived the North East winter well. I also live in a relatively dry area, which is the main reason for winter failure.
I first clapped eyes on one at the Chelsea Physic Garden one May and was transfixed by the 12ft flower spikes. They generally have a large mound of exotic, hairy foliage (I know, it sounds wrong) and flower in their second or third year (although I had an E. pininana flower in its fourth year.
As prolific self-seeders (especially E. pininana), you’ll never be without these whoppers – stunning if you want a tropical or architectural look.
For a small garden, they don’t take up that much ground space – it’s all in the flower spike, which grows like a rocket in late spring. However, they do have a habit of bending towards the light, so do best where they are not leaning in one direction.
Echium varieties to look out for
Here’s what I’ve grown, all from specialist Plant World Seeds, in descending order of height:
Echium pininana: Height: 3-4.8 metres. Love at first sight! Despite my early fears, they self-seeded into gravel and soi. There are three colour variations – Pink Fountain, Blue Steeple and Snow Tower, blue, pink and white. I first grew these with unnecessary kid gloves, in large pots, so I could take them inside to overwinter.
The only plant that failed was near a leaky water butt, so obviously too wet. The plants left outdoors flowered in their second year, the mollycoddled ones indoors took three.
Drought tolerant and although they droop in a frost, they soon perk up as temperatures rise. They will tolerate a couple of nights at -4C but any more will really upset them – and they do often look a bit ropey at the end of winter but pick up quickly.
Echium Red Rocket: Height: 1.5-2 metres. Red Rocket is a cross between E. wildpretii and E. pininana Pink Fountain for a hardier plant. Fat, bee-magnet spikes are thickly crowded with dark pink or strawberry-red flowers, blue-pollen-powdered anthers. In a sheltered, well-drained spot against a wall or under a hedge, it will stand a few degrees of frost.
Echium boissieri: Height: 1.8-2.4 metres. In the first year, it forms a woolly, prostrate, silver rosette of leaves. The next year, strong thick stems carrying bunches of creamy-apricot flowers with red stamens and sky blue pollen, are produced.
A native of southern Spain, Algeria, Morocco, Spain and Portugal, the largest frost-hardy Echium, down to approximately -6C.
Echium fastuosum: Height: 80cm-1.8 metres. Known as the Pride of Madeira, with 12” spikes of purple-blue flowers open on strong branching stems in spring and summer. Can be classed as a perennial in a large pot or a very protected garden to become a long-lived small tree.
Mine started off in a large pot and now is planted out in a raised bed with plenty of gravel, despite a minimum guideline temperature of 5C.
Echium fastuosum Blue Dwarf: Height: 1-1.3 metres. An E. fastuosum/pininana hybrid (probably) which appeared in the Plant World Seeds’ garden. Best grown in a sheltered spot facing the sun. Stumpy, fat spikes of cobalt-blue flowers open from April to June. Like E. fastuosum, protect from cold winds and severe frost.
Echium wildpretii (Tower of Jewels): Height: 1-1.25 metres. Native to Mount Teide in Tenerife, they grow at altitude and can survive -7C in a dry environment, so winter wet is a no-no. Mine are in pots in a (very) cold greenhouse.
Stunning rose-pink spikes of flowers, bright blue pollen, arising from rosettes of radiating, furry, narrow grey leaves. They readily cross-breed with other Echiums, so be warned! Like E. pininana, they are technically triennials, flowering in their third year (24 months after sowing) after which they die.
Growing from seed
I sow mine early in spring (mid-February) in an 18-20ºC heated propagator with a grow lamp to give a good 18 hours of daylight in seed compost with a covering of Perlite (they need light to germinate).
Once they’ve germinated, there’s no stopping them – the pictures above cover just 10 weeks! Pot on into gritty compost into pots until hardened off and ready to go outdoors into sheltered beds of containers.
The hardier varieties can cope with life in a bed (cover with fleece if a severe cold spell is expected) and make sure the soil is very free draining. Waterlogging is a killer. Allow any self-seeded plants to stay where they are over winter – if they survive, all to the good.
If you live in wetter areas, grow in large containers and overwinter indoors or make a rain shelter to protect from the worst of the wet.
Double your chances by saving some in pots, some in the ground – although my initial potted and pampered plants fell prey badly to aphids. You can’t win!