This hairy quick-grower seeds well and produces striking flower spikes, says Miranda Kimberley.

Echium wildpretti ssp wildpretti - image: Floramedia
Echium wildpretti ssp wildpretti - image: Floramedia

Northern readers will curse that once again we have chosen a plant that will do well in southern regions and is more of a risk in colder climates. However, gardens in Yorkshire, the Midlands and Dublin have all had success growing Echium and, because many of the showy species can be grown from seed, it is worth giving them a try.

Echium really are special plants - in particular the magnificent Tree echium (E. pininana). They are highly attractive to bees and butterflies and there are a few hardy souls that will give a fantastic show in perennial borders. Part of the Boraginaceae family, they are characterised by their hairy or bristly leaves. This can make them irritating to the skin, of which gardeners should be aware. There are around 40 species, including several types of plant - annual, biennial, perennial and shrubs.

Probably the best known or desired is E. pininana (sometimes referred to as E. pinnifolium). It is a tender biennial, originating from the Canary Islands, which grows a large rosette in the first year and produces an incredible flower spike up to 4m tall in the second or third year.

The blue flowers can stay for up to three months, attracting bees and butterflies. The Tree echium in Middle Temple Gardens in London even played host to a nesting wren earlier this year. Once the plant has flowered, it sheds abundant seed and then dies.

E. russicum is a hardier species that produces fabulous spikes of red flowers. It is a perennial but can be short-lived. It is quite short at 60-90cm, so is good for border fronts and again very attractive to bees.

Another stunning plant in the right situation is E. candicans (also known as E. fatuosum), which forms a shrub around 2m high and spanning 2m across with masses of white or blue flowers.

E. vulgare is a native European wildflower that can produce blue, purple, pink or white flowers. They are prolific self-seeders and can take over the garden somewhat, so care is needed, unless they are used in a wild garden where formality is not required. Several short versions have been produced to be used as bedding in borders.

All Echium like a sunny, open position in very-well-drained soil. The tender species (including E. pininana, E. candicans, E. wildprettii and E. gigantum) can be risked in borders, but if frosts are forecast, give the plants some protection by wrapping them in horticultural fleece, or grow them in a greenhouse or conservatory.

They do not cope with winter wet. Once flowered, they produce plenty of seed that can be left to fall or be collected and sown in the greenhouse to produce plants for planting out the following spring. The shrubby types can be propagated by taking semi-ripe cuttings of lateral shoots in the summer.

What the specialists say

- Steve Dance, office manager, Burncoose Nurseries, Cornwall

"I think that the key to the Echium's popularity is the purely exotic look, as well as its dramatic growth rate.

It will grow in two years from a seedling to a flowering plant of possibly 4m. For these reasons, the favourite is E. pinnifolium. If customers want a smaller plant, E. fastuosum is a lower-growing, bushier species with fantastic flowers.

"These plants are not fully hardy and will suffer from heavy frost. Once they have flowered in the second year, they will seed well. It is best to transplant them when they are as small as possible. For best results, obtain plants in the spring and get them established then."

- Kevin Bosustow, manager, Cross Common Nursery, Cornwall

"We grow five or six different sorts, including three varieties of E. pininana. Most are tender but there are the hardy species E. russicum and E. vulgare. They are not all biennial.

E. fatuosum forms a nice shrub 2m tall and 2m across, bearing lots of plumes of blue flowers.

"The tender types can tolerate temperatures down to -4 degsC if they are planted in a sunny, very-free-draining position. They can't cope with heavy soils. To protect them, wrap them in fleece.

"And watch out because they can be a skin irritant. Butterflies and bees are very attracted to them."

In Practice

- Kate Jenrick, head gardener, Middle Temple, London

"E. pininana has the wow factor for humans and bees alike. Reaching heights of 3m and more, it produces a single huge spike of tiny blue flowers (although I have a strain of duskypink) from May to July. Technically biennial, it will typically spend two to three years growing before it flowers. It is monocarpic but in its ideal surroundings will freely self-seed and establish itself in cracks and on tops of walls, ensuring a continuous supply.

"Location, though, is key. In central London there are a number of sites where these thrive, but a few miles away from the microclimate of this built-up area, success with it may be limited.

"At Middle Temple, some plants, but not all, have come through the past two severe winters without protection. They need shelter, not only from the severest temperatures, but also from wind. Full sun is not essential, although partial shade will limit the ultimate height attained."

Species and varieties

- E. auberianum 'Dwarf Teide Bugloss' is rarely grown. This variety produces clusters of silvery-blue-green leaves and an 80cm tall blue flower spike.

- E. candicans 'Pride of Madeira' is a half-hardy shrub that produces masses of mid-blue flower spikes in late spring. Height: 1.8m.

- E. gentianoides is another half-hardy shrub that produces striking gentian-blue tubular flowers. Height: 1.2m.

- E. lusitanicum ssp. polycaulon is an easy-to-grow, but not particularly spectacular, hardy perennial species that produces spikes of blue flowers with protruding anthers. Height: 1m.

- E. pininana (syn. E. pinnifolium) is the incredible Tree echium that can produce spikes up to 4m high of blue flowers. It is a half-hardy biennial. Highly attractive to bees and butterflies. Height: 2-4m.

- E. plantagineum is a hardy annual. It bears several flower-bearing stems with rich-red/purple flowers. Height: 30-60cm.

- E. russicum is a bushy, hardy perennial that produces long spikes of dark-red flowers. Completely hardy in well-drained soil in the UK. Height: 90cm.

- E. tuberculatum is a hardy perennial. It is a showy plant, producing attractive prickly rosettes in the first year, giving rise to lots of small pink trumpets in the second year. Height: 30-60cm.

- E. vulgare 'Viper's Bugloss' is a European native wildflower. It is a bushy, upright hardy annual or biennial that produces short, dense spikes of purple or blue bell-shaped flowers. Ideal for the border or wildflower garden, this variety flowers from June to September. Height: 90cm.

- E. wildpretii ssp. wildpretii is a fantastic plant that produces a tall spike of crimson flowers and beautiful rosettes of silver leaves. Easy to grow, but resents winter damp. Hardy to -5 degsC.

- E. wildpretii (approx equal to) pininana is a large hybrid that, due to its parents, can produce pink or blue flowers. Protect from severe frosts and keep dry over winter if possible. Height: up to 3m.

Thankyou to floramedia, who have supplied the photos for this feature from their photolibrary

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