Echium: a tale of love and loss

A melodramatic title for a garden diva

Back in the summer of 2015 I fulfilled a long-standing ambition to visit the Eden Project in Cornwall. Carried away by all the horticultural excitement I purchased two tiny echium plants in 9cm pots. Echium pininana are native to the Canary Islands. They grow into big hairy plants which shoot out a monumental flower spike up to 3m tall. However, as you’d expect from something at home nearer the equator, they prefer something warmer and drier than Yorkshire, and coaxing it into flower was something of a labour of love.

It survived the 300-mile journey home and I planted it in the front garden, in a stony south-west facing bed, backed by a low beech hedge which sheltered it from wind. The other went to my mum’s garden, over the Pennines in Lancashire.    

Things went swimmingly for the first winter.  The season was reasonably mild and the plant was small enough to cover with an upturned bucket for protection from the odd frosty night.  Echium grew slowly but steadily through the summer of 2016, with rough textured leaves and a thick hairy stem. I planted it at the back of the border but it lay down and snaked its way to the front to be in the limelight, apparently very typical behavior.  Unusually for an echium, this one split into multiple heads, rather than a single stem.  They are supposed to flower in their second year and by summer 2016 this one was putting on lots of showy growth but showed no sign of anything more floriferous.

Frost protection through the winter of 2016 was more of a challenge.  By now Echium was at least 3 feet across with several heads and had to be draped in a fleecy blanket on chilly nights. A frosty forecast would trigger a flurry of texts between Lancashire and Yorkshire ‘Have you covered your Echium tonight?’ as the two sister plants battled on. Lancashire’s damp cold proved too much for my mum’s plant, but Yorkshire Echium survived, a little frost burned but otherwise unscathed. 

By April 2017, something exciting started to happen.  The main head showed definite signs of lengthening out and over the next month, a tall flower stem started to stretch upward. By now the whole plant was so big that we couldn’t park the car in the usual place as there wasn’t room to squeeze past its sandpapery leaves.  From ground to the tip of the flower spike it was eight feet tall and I was so excited when the first flowers began to open in May. The spike was packed with hundreds of tiny purple blooms, arranged in curls so as one faded away another at appeared. Bees loved it – I could sit on the doorstep and hear the whole column humming.  Passers by stopped to ask about it and it was certainly the highlight of the garden that year.        

Received wisdom classes the plant as biennial  – once the flower dies, the whole plant dies. I cut my faded flower stem back in late summer, but there were still half a dozen side stems all looking healthy. Could I nurture it through a third winter and get a whole candelabra of flowers the following summer?

I was so close to getting it through winter 2017 but sadly it wasn’t to be. We had a few hard frosts and some snowfall early on and, like another child or pet, echium gave me some sleepless nights worrying. I’d refined my frost protection and had progressed to wrapping each limb in yards and yards of horticultural fleece and finishing off by draping in a blanket. The whole effect looked rather ghoulish.  On some snowy nights I’d tiptoe out in my dressing gown to shake of the weight of accumulating snow from the stems.

By February, echium was looking terrible but still alive and I had high hopes of nursing it through to spring.  But the sting in the tail was the ‘Beast from the East’. As we moved into March, freezing temperatures from central Europe brought biting winds and night after night of sub zero temperature. Multiple blankets and handwarmers placed beneath failed to save it and the limbs blacked and died, ‘like a dementor has breathed on it’ said a friend.  I waited until well into spring, willing new shoots to appear but reluctantly had to admit defeat and eventually cut it down.

It’s a great regret that my echium didn’t live to see summer 2018.  It would have loved the heatwave and revelled in the 30 degree temperatures.  However the whole episode was a great horticultural adventure and a lesson in what you can grow, if you just have a try.


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