Picture a forest of outlandish, spiky plants, two or three metres tall, their spires bearing hundreds of tiny flowers, looking more like the creation of a rogue plant geneticist than a suburban gardener. What a way to make a statement in your garden!
[Note- All the amazing photos below are from Wikipedia commons, which permits free use with accreditation- see details at the end of this post.]
There are about 60 species of echium, which are related to borage and comfrey, some annuals, some perennials. They’re native to North Africa, mainland Europe and the Macaronesian islands. Their flowers come in a colour palette including bright blue, purple, white and pink. They’re tough and drought tolerant.
The annual forms can be highly prolific, sometimes invasive, self-sowing and growing vigorously. Perennial echiums grow easily from cuttings.
In flower they attract bees and other beneficial insects, aiding in pollination of vegetables and fruit trees, and keeping spring pests under control. The large, softly hairy grey-green leaves look good all year round.
Echiums like full sun and well-drained soil, tolerating long periods without water. They are quite frost tender so should be planted when the last chance of frost is past. They also don’t like too much humidity. Having said all that, I’m aware of some Mudgee gardens where echiums grow very successfully- I’ve had two seedlings growing since last spring and I’m hopeful they may survive the very heavy frosts we get here in winter.
The best known ornamental echium is E. candicans, originally from the Canary Islands. It forms a large bush two or more metres tall with 20-30 spikes of purple flowers in spring. Several exceptional cultivars can be seen growing in the Digger’s Seeds garden, at Heronswood, on the Mornington Peninsula. The Diggers Seeds online catalogue is worth looking at just to see the many varieties available. I tried a few of their seedlings some years ago but they were very quickly attacked by grubs which ate out the growing tips- apparently there are butterfly species which favour echiums to lay their eggs in.
Annual echiums generally die after flowering, but may become short-lived perennials if the spent flower heads are cut back in summer.
Some interesting echium facts:
- In Crete the tender shoots of Echium italicum, known as voidoglosses, are eaten boiled or steamed.
- The seed oil from Echium plantagineum contains high levels of alpha linolenic acid (ALA), gamma linolenic acid (GLA) and stearidonic acid (SDA), used in cosmetics and skin care products, and as an alternative to fish oils.
- Echium plantagineum (locally known as “Patterson’s Curse” or “Salvation Jane”), is a major invasive species in Australia, after being introduced in the 1880’s as a source of food for grazing ruminant animals in drought times. Unfortunately, it’s toxic to non-ruminant animals. After the 2003 Canberra bushfires, over 40 horses reportedly died after eating the weed.
- Viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare) honey is a favourite floral honey product of New Zealand.
Photo 6 (left) and photo 7 (right)
My mother, Anne, introduced me to echiums- they were a favourite and suited her garden of bright, eye-catching plants. I collected seed last winter, and will try my luck with them next spring.
Photo 1 by Hnsjrgnweis – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49228120
Photo 2 By Mark Pellegrini – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6676724
Photo 3 By Mark Pellegrini – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=667672
Photo 4 by Garavitotfe – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15511519
Photo 5 by $pooky – https://www.flickr.com/photos/spoo/2745372908, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4638249
Photo 6 by Jörg Hempel, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60025872
Photo 7 by Bjoertvedt – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38600372
Photo 8 by Citrus limon – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33186967