Pride and joy
How to grow echiums for a spectacular show of flowers
Agood-looking echium in full bloom can take your breath away. With its tall flower spires rising from a spiky-leafed mound of sculptural grey-green leaves, this is a genuine statement plant. Bees love them, and the flowers are held on the stems for many weeks.
In a large garden, echiums look sensational planted in banks or as part of a herbaceous perennial border, where smaller plants can nestle under them, filling in some of the void between ground and leaves. In moderate-sized gardens, they make eye-catching feature plants, as long as you give them the room they need. The most commonly grown, Echium candicans, sends out upright spires of usually violet-blue flowers up to 60cm long. These amazing blooms rise above a large, rounded bush that can extend to 1.5–2m high by a similar width. They’re not for a small courtyard!
We have all heard the saying, “Can’t live with them, can’t live without them”. Well, if there is a plant I have grown over the years that this applies to, it is echiums. These plants live fast and die young, and in my frosty climate in the Adelaide Hillls, I have lost a number of them. Echiums have distinct likes and dislikes, and like any diva, need to be properly managed.
Echium spp. hail from Madeira and the Canary Islands, off the north-west coast of Africa. They thrive with hot, dry summers and cold winters, and are perfect for coastal areas, but do not like humidity, hard frosts or heavy clay soils, particularly when wet in winter.
Choose a sunny, open position where they have room to spread, but are protected from frost. Drainage needs to be very good, so dig in plenty of compost and aged manure. Heavy clay soil is a challenge, but if you incorporate gypsum and lots of coarse sand, and create a planting mound, you may have some luck.
Buy plants in pots, tubes or as seed. There may be variation in flower colour, foliage and growth habit among seed-grown plants. Echiums strike well from cuttings, although getting suitable material can be an issue. The best pieces to use are the new little shoots around a damaged stem, or just below where a spent flower spire has been pruned. It’s a good idea to ask an echium-owning neighbour for a cutting – that way, you know the plant is tried and tested in your conditions.
fast living, frosts & foes
One of the downsides to a quick growth habit is that echiums don’t live long, and their looks can give way to legginess. Fortunately, when you pull out an echium that’s past its peak, seedlings are often growing under the canopy. This also means they are potential weeds, so avoid planting them if they can escape into bushland. I’ve found that plants grown ‘hard’ in very well-drained soils in a frost-protected position can live up to 10 years. By ‘hard’, I mean they had little or no supplementary water once established, and little fertiliser. It seems the softer and quicker they grow, the shorter their lifespan.
My echiums tolerated frosts to –2°C once established in my previous garden but they draw the line at –5°C here. I can only grow them in a west-facing bed against the stone walls of my home, where they are protected. Frost can not only damage the flowers, it can also burn the plant. Once established, the plant is hardier, but a bad frost can still affect flowering for that year.
Heavy clay soils and wet winters can prove fatal. If echiums go through a wet winter, they are likely to curl up their toes on the first hot day and die from roots rotting off in winter. An application of root-rot fungicide may save a plant in these conditions.
Other issues include caterpillars, snails, slugs and leaf miners. Have a rummage through the foliage to get rid of these pests. If you have a major leaf miner infestation, cut off damaged material (usually new rosette tips) and put in a plastic bag. Leave the bag in the sun for a few days to kill larvae, then pop it in the rubbish bin.
Finally, be careful when you are pruning. Echiums prefer deadheading – if you prune into the hard wood, they will not reshoot. Instead, just tidy up the bush by cutting off spent flowers below the flower stem, as soon as they are finished.