Pride and joy

How to grow echi­ums for a spec­tac­u­lar show of flow­ers

Gardening Australia - - CONTENTS -

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.

get­ting started

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.

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