Echiums are related to borage and share similar characteristics, such as hairy stems and leaves, and nectar-rich flowers that are loved by pollinating insects. There are around 40 species of Echium that grow across Europe and Asia. These range from the common Echium vulgare, also known as viper’s bugloss (the seed looks a little like a snake’s head), to the gigantic Echium pininana or tree echium, that can grow to around 5m. The taller varieties originate from the Canary islands so will only grow in similar conditions and need protecting in the UK. However, they will usually self-seed prolifically, so will colonise your garden if allowed to. Be careful when handling, as the sap can irritate the skin and all parts of the plant are toxic if eaten.
Where to plant echiums
Echiums need free draining soil to enable them survive wet winters. They thrive in full sun but will tolerate shadier situations – they might get a little misshapen as they grow in the direction of the light. You can grow them in large containers and this may be the best option for the more tender varieties, as they will need to be overwintered indoors.
Growing echiums from seed and taking cuttings
Echiums can be grown from seed. Sow in late spring/early summer, lightly covering the seeds with vermiculite and do not over water. Transplant seedlings when they have germinated.
Biennial echiums will self-seed readily. Alternatively you can collect seed to ensure you don’t end up with plants in the wrong place. You can take cuttings from the shrubbier species in late May and June, after flowering.
Echiums: problem solving
Looking after echium plants
Echiums are pretty robust plants, given the right growing conditions. However, the more tender varieties do need protection during cold winter weather, either in a cold greenhouse or a conservatory if growing in pots. If growing in borders, use fleece loosely covering the crown of the plant.
Echium varieties to grow
- Echium aculeatum, the lesser white bugloss, is native to the Canary Islands and rarely grown in the UK. A shrubby variety, it’s low-growing and bushy in habit with silvery foliage
- Echium pininana is one of the more recognisable varieties with its dramatically tall spires. Biennial, it will self-seed readily in the right spot. The Royal Horticultural Society has given it its Award of Garden Merit (AGM)
- Echium vulgare is a biennial wildflower, good for attracting pollinators, especially bees. Rosettes of slender, bristly leaves appear in the first year, followed by spikes of blue bell-shaped flowers, larger than the Canary Islands species. It’s perfect for growing in a wildlife garden or at the front of a sunny border
- Echium amoenum ‘Red Feathers’ is a perennial variety, but rather short lived. The plumes of flowers are pinkish red. It’s a good filler for sunny borders and is also good for growing in a pot. Deadhead spent blooms to encourage repeat-flowering and protect during harsh winter weather
- Echium webbii bears tall spikes of brilliant, violet-blue flowers. It’s perfect for growing in a sunny, sheltered spot or sunny patio. A biennial, it flowers in its second year, so young plants need protection through harsh winters