Way back in 2011 ( I think) I ordered some flower seed from an online retailer. When the package arrived I was pleased to see they had also enclosed a free gift. Two packets of Echium Pininana seed, two varieties ‘Blue Steeple’ and ‘Snow Tower’. I have to confess I had no idea what they actually were, so after enlightening myself with a quick Google search, I was very excited to see what a spectacle these huge flowering plants are.
Waiting until the appropriate planting time I duly planted up half of both varieties of the seed in small individual pots, mixing the remaining seed into a single packet (a mistake I later came to regret) and stored it away. The viability of the seed was excellent with 100% germination.
The life cycle of these plants is such that in the first year it forms a large leafy rosette, the leaf covered in stiff and mildly irritating hair leaving the plant well protected against slugs and snails. If conditions are good and it can survive the winter, the following year the plant prepares to flower by sending up a rapidly growing spire. The growth rate is quite phenomenal – several centimeters per day! As the spire grows, coiled flower stems begin emerging from the main trunk.
I had to research the internet to discover how best to care for this plant. They are frequently seen growing down in the South West of the UK and also in the Channel Islands, notably Guernsey. The problem is the further North you are in latitude and with a harsh winter the less likely it is to make it to the second year. They also need a really good sunny spot, preferably all day. Planting one in a shady border is simply not an option. This left with me a problem as the only such spot in my back garden is right in the middle of the lawn. The wife was not too impressed when I began digging a bed in the middle of the lawn without an explanation. I transplanted all the young plants into the bed and watched them form lovely silvery rosettes until the winter arrived. I did my best to protect them, but that winter was just too much and they all sadly perished.
In the spring of 2014 I remembered I still had the seed and contemplated having another go and hoped for a milder winter. Again I planted up the seed into small pots, this time around and with older seed the germination rate was not so good. In fact I only had one viable seedling and I had no idea which variety it was. This time I decided I would keep the plant in the biggest pot I could get my hands on instead of planting it in the ground. This way I reasoned I could avoid frozen ground and perhaps even bring it inside if needed. I chose a slightly different spot to place it, again pleasing the wife with a large pot sat in the middle of the lawn. The plant grew well in the pot despite my concern it may become pot bound. As winter approached it was a healthy looking specimen. To help protect it, I covered the soil with a good couple of inches of pea shingle additionally I wrapped the entire pot with reflective bubble wrap duct insulation. Now I will be the first to confess that this did not look very attractive and I did spot a neighbour staring at it in wonder but I viewed this as a ‘do or die’ attempt and was determined to get one to flower. On very cold days and nights I covered the plant with a double layer of garden fleece, thankfully these days were quite rare in the winter of 2014/15 and so for the most part it was left uncovered. Before long the longer warmer days arrived and I was more than thrilled when the second year growth began in earnest.
Echium Pininana is actually a very easy plant to grow from seed. Requiring little in the way of watering, in fact they are very good at telling you when to water when you notice the foliage drooping. I never fed it, or did anything except protect it from the coldest of winter nights and provide a large stake to tie to to prevent it snapping in strong wind. Occasionally with an early spell of warm weather the plant can decide to begin sending up the spire, only for a cold snap to make it change it’s mind. Apparently a remedy for this is to cut out the growing tip and wait another year, at which time you should be rewarded, if your lucky with a pair of spires from a single plant.
I can only say, when the tubular bell shaped and nectar rich flowers began opening on this impressive looking plant that it was continually covered in bees, both Bombus and Apis. All day long they searched from flower to flower, up and down appearing reluctant to leave it. The flowering length is equally impressive, a few months. After which you are left with a rather dry looking plant laden with seed. The seed is easy to collect, just place something around the plant like a blanket and give the trunk a few solid blows and you will have plenty.
One day I had a knock at the door from a gentleman with his own garden care business who had spotted it at distance above the fence asking if he could come in and take a look at it. He was so impressed he thought I should have contacted the local paper as he thought it was highly unusual to get one to flower as North as we are located! I am not sure about that as I am sure others even further North have had success.
I mentioned earlier I made a mistake by mixing the two varieties of seed into one packet. I am unsure which variety this is. The flowers on first opening were a definite shade of blue and pink but quickly fade into a very pale pink. It may have even been some kind of hybrid. Perhaps there is someone out there with an opinion? I also made another mistake, apart from the few seeds I gave the pro gardener I accidentally threw out all the seed I had collected for myself. However all is not entirely lost as recently spotted this young plant growing under the bird table of all places. I am pretty sure it is an Echium. I hope it is and I hope it does as well as the parent. With the mild winter we are currently having it is a great shame I do not have any first year plants overwintering as this will not flower until 2017.
I hope this may encourage others to have a go at growing this fantastic plant, not only do they look stunning in flower they are a good talking point and extremely popular with our pollinator friends due to the rich nectar supply. Have a go, the bees will thank you for it.