These striking plants come in an array of colours and vary in size and growing habit, meaning there is an echium for pretty much every garden style. From formal to the exotic, meadow to conservatory, these boastful, sun-loving plants provide beauty, structure and texture, and are sure to turn heads.
A well-placed echium will offer a real taste of splendour to your garden and, thanks to their nectar-rich blooms, they are irresistible to butterflies and other essential pollinators, including the ever-dwindling honey bee. These bountiful beauties thrive in hot, dry conditions and, where many plants would struggle, echiums will remain completely unperturbed by sudden heatwaves in the summer months.
While echiums’ tolerance of our planet’s rising temperatures certainly doesn’t offer recompense for the worrisome shifts of climate change, you can at least rest in the knowledge that they are giving the bees some much-needed help.
What are echiums?
The name echium comes from the Greek word, “echis”, meaning viper and dates back to Dioscorides, an ancient Greek botanist, who noted that the plant resembled the shape of a vipers head.
Echiums are related to borage, sharing similar attributes such as the hairy stems and leaves. There are over seventy varieties of echiums which includes biennials, which complete their life cycle in two years, perennials, which die down in winter and shrubs which provide year-round foliage.
Echiums can be found in suitable climates worldwide with the tallest of the varieties, which can grow up to 5 metres in height, hailing from the canary islands. These varieties need to grow in similar conditions that the islands provide but they also self-seed prolifically and will quite happily colonise your garden if given the opportunity.
Types of echium
When it comes to echiums, part of the fun is choosing the right one for your garden. The varieties vary wildly, and all have something a little different to offer, and different species lend themselves to different planting styles.
If you aren’t very familiar with this plant, then choosing the right echium for your garden can feel a bit overwhelming. We anticipated this and have put together a list of some of our favourite varieties to help you choose the perfect echium for you.
Echium vulgare, or viper’s bugloss, is a biennial wildflower with bristly foliage from which erect leafy stems emerge in early summer producing spikes of beautiful bell-shaped flowers in shades of violet, blue or purple.
Growing to a height of around 75cm and with a 50cm spread, this impressive variety is a magnet for essential pollinators making it a great candidate for a little wildlife or small meadow garden. It’s also very suitable for sunny mixed borders and provides early summer colour, blooming from June to August.
The echium vulgare thrives in full sun, in moderately fertile, well-drained soil. Deadheading regularly will encourage extended flowering. After the flowering period, you can leave the stems uncut and this plant will self-sow freely around the garden.
Echium ‘pink fountain’
The breathtaking echium ‘pink fountain’ is arguably one of the most lusted after varieties, growing to an impressive height of up to 2 metres and with a spread of around 1 metre.
This variety is known for the wide tapered spike of flowers that it produces: Up to 35cm wide, and in a dazzling pink. The plant basically acts as a lighthouse for bees, too, drawing in these important pollinators.
Pink fountain is a hybrid, too, giving it the most striking characteristics of echium wildpretii and echium pininana, varieties which sport red and blue flowers respectively. In the first year you’ll enjoy a rosette of greyish-green leaves, replaced in the second year by the fountain of flowers that lend the variety its name.
This species of echium works its magic best in moist, well-drained soil, in full sun to partial shade.
Echium amoenum ‘Red Feathers’
This fascinating, architectural echium is a compact, short-lived perennial which a dark green mound of evergreen leaves from which feathery plumes of russet-red flowers emerge in spring and all through summer.
Growing to just 10cm in height and 8cm in spread, this variety of echium is perfect for filling gaps in borders and will also grow well in a pot or container, giving your patio or decking a taste of the exotic.
Echium amoenum ‘red feathers’ prefers moist, well-drained soil or compost and should be planted in a spot where it can enjoy full sun. Be sure to deadhead the blooms to encourage repeat flowering.
Hailing from the Canary Islands, the echium pininana is easily the most recognisable variety and has been given the Royal Horticulture Society’s prestigious Award of Garden Merit.
In the first year, this brilliant biennial forms a low rosette of hairy, silver spear-shaped leaves and then, during the second year, it hoists up its splendid spike, loaded with gorgeous, blue flowers.
Growing to a height of around 1.8 metres and with a spread of 90cm, this superb specimen will thrive in a sunny sheltered spot in moist well-drained soil and is a perfect addition to the backs of garden borders.
How to grow Echiums
Now that you have brushed up your knowledge on echiums, you have probably gathered that they require moist, well-drained soil and a sheltered sunny site when it comes to planting. They will tolerate partial shade, but it is worth mentioning that they are likely to become misshapen as they will always grow in the direction of the sun.
You can also grow echiums in containers, and this might be the best option if you have opted for one of the more tender varieties as you will need to overwinter them.
Echiums can be grown from seed, and you should get sowing in late spring or early summer. Lightly cover the seeds with vermiculite, taking care not to overwater. Once the seedlings have germinated, you can transplant them to the garden.
To help the plants establish, water them once planted. Once established echiums are robust and drought tolerant so will not require frequent watering, however, in hotter months they may require a little extra help. The aim of the game is to keep the soil around them moist, but not soggy.
If you are growing your echiums in pots or containers, then they will rely on you them to provide them with water. Be sure to choose containers with adequate drainage holes to allow excess water to drain away freely.
Ongoing care for echiums
Echiums really do tend to take care of themselves. If you are growing a shrubby variety, you can cut off the flower spike after flowering and give the plant a little trim to encourage the plant to maintain its shape and avoid it from becoming straggly.
Deadheading is not necessary, but as previously mentioned, it can help to extend the flowering period.
Although echiums are generally disease-free, there are a few pesky pests to watch out for.
Slugs and snails
Happily, it’s easy to see if you have a snail or slug problem thanks to the “crime scene” they leave behind with their long trails of silver slime.
Slugs and snails can be combatted with pellets or, if you are unphased by these gross little opportunists, you can simply pick them off the plant and dispose of them.
Although not a frequent problem, caterpillars can be quite partial to echiums. Like slugs and snails, they leave a tell-tale trail behind them, and in their case its in the form of holes where they have chomped through the plant.
There are lots of home remedies when it comes to tackling caterpillars, but one of the easiest ways to deal with them is to make the area around the plant they are attacking attractive to birds. Simply spread some seeds around the base of the echium and the birds will visit and happily take the caterpillars off your hands!
Elevate your garden with elegant echiums
Elegant echiums are real statement pieces and can truly elevate your garden’s aesthetics, providing interest, beauty and whimsy. With so many varieties to choose from, you will have no trouble finding the perfect echium for you, whatever the size or style of your garden.
It’s no surprise that these superior plants are frequently planted in stately gardens. Why not take a piece of the pie – get planting, and reap the rewards of these spectacular, powerful flowers.