Echium

The Canary Islands, native home of Echium

The Canary Islands, native home of echium

Some things don’t work out.  Growing Echium in Sammamish.  New Years resolutions.  Life.  The lava mouse.  Echium pininana is a brilliant plant, but difficult here in the Northwest.  A biennial, it produces a flower spike in it’s second year up to 18 feet tall.  This tower of small blue flowers will suck any gardener into a bee-buzzed trance.  They will stare at this sub-tropical soaring Echium with mouths open, eyes glazed, and images of exotic ornamentals dancing in their heads.  All I had to do was read the tag at the nursery–up to 18 feet tall–and I was hooked.  Could I do it?  I had to try!  I was optimistic after hearing the testimonial from a fellow gardener.  He grew Echium pininana here in the NW.  He built a cold frame around his Echium for twowinters (sometimes it’s a triennial).  He placed a heat lamp in the cold frame.  He watched his Echium grow to it’s glory the third summer, drawing forth gasps from passers-by and swarming bees.  Since my eyes were still slightly glazed as I imagined this tall exotic in my very own yard, I didn’t quite grasp all the effort involved in growing this outstanding species.  Innocently I planted my 1 gallon in west facing sun—spring.  In zone denial I watched the large rosettes of leaves grow to three feet tall—summer.  Reality hit hard as I watched it turn to black slime—fall, as temperatures went below freezing.  Reality gets me again, even though I prefer living in the world of my imagination.

Imagine traveling to the far-off Northwest coast of Africa and visiting the beautiful Canary Islands, native home of Echium.  The world’s third largest volcano, Teide, is found there, but sadly no longer the extinct lava mouse.  I was stunned to find out that the average low temperature in January in the Canary Islands is 58 degrees F.  The average low is in the upper 50’s?!!   What are we doing growing Echium here when our average lows hover around freezing?  This is not a small difference, and to me it translates to ’summer annual’, not the half’-hardy biennial they claim in Southern England.

However, if your eyes are still glazed over and thoughts of 18 feet of flowers are dreamily floating through your head, here are the details on growing tree echium, or tower of jewels, it’s other bewitching name.  Planted in the spring it will grow several feet it’s first summer, producing big beautiful rosettes of leaves.  When winter arrives it will demand protection from the cold.  Courage and fortitude and best of luck.  The following spring the tip will begin to elongate and a succession of tiny blue fowers will bloom from April-October on a cone 10-18 feet tall.  During the early spring the growth rate can reach almost two inches a day!  Echium can become top heavy and needs to be planted firmly in the ground or they will tip over.  Also, Echium will lean towards the light, so providing a spot that receives full sun from different angles will produce a straighter plant.  This species can be invasive in warmer climates (California), dropping over 200,000 seeds per plant.

Even though not everything works out, it’s still fun to try.  Challenge yourself this spring.  Make imagination a reality and grow a tower of jewels in your very own yard.  Or simply enjoy those lovely sub-tropical summer annuals.

Echium in my garden.

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