EchiumWildpretti_4.jpg
Credit: Peter Symcox

An interesting - and very dramatic - plant has begun to appear in our gardens.


New to me, I first saw it in a friend's garden overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca, where it seemed more than happy, enduring the coastal gales and dry summer climate with amazing fortitude, although it is quite tender and needs a mild winter to survive. Certainly, growing it in a pot that can be stored in a greenhouse or basement before the cold sets in might be a good solution.

I refer to Echium wildpretii (zone 9). Growing from a basal rosette of thin, lance-shaped silver leaves rises a column, nearly 1.8 m (6 ft.) tall and some 25 cm (10 in.) in diameter at the base, tapering to 10 cm (4 in.) at the top, densely packed with small tubular magenta-coloured flowers. Probably many readers will be familiar with E. vulgare, or viper's bugloss (zones 3 to 8), which grows almost as a wild flower in Europe: dried and powdered, it was once thought to be a remedy against the bites of mad dogs and vipers - hence the name.

E. wildpretii, however, is fairly rare. It is, of course, a biennial, as are all the other echiums, but it is certainly worth taking the trouble to find a specimen in the nurseries - although you will have to wait a year before the stunning flower column emerges and grows to its spectacular height. Like other echiums it is possible and easy to grow them from seed, remembering, too, that they like poor gravelly soils; all of them are of the simplest culture.

In fact, the genus is a group of 40 species, each with coarse, hairy leaves sometimes, depending upon the species, forming a rosette at the base. Their natural habitat is the stony hillsides, cliffs, open woodland and grassy steppes of Europe, the Canary Isles and the Mediterranean - almost, one could say, a desert-like environment. Oddly enough, if the soil is too rich, this will inhibit flowering - they obviously like to fight the elements and do best when struggling for a living.

In certain cases, contact with the skin may cause mild irritation, and we are told not to eat the leaves or flowers, as stomach upset will certainly follow. E. candicans (pride of Madeira) does well in poor soils (hardy only to 5°C/41°F); E. pininana (the tree echium, zone 9) will, in its second year, throw up a spike nearly 4 m (13 ft.) high and this species, too, can be grown from seed, whilst E. russicum (zone 9) will put forth several stems per plant, each with deep-red flowers along the stem. Whichever one you choose (and a planting of three or five E. wildpretii in a group would be enough to set any gardener's pulse racing) you will certainly be thrilled with this unusual and striking plant.