Echium pininana, sometimes known by the common names of Viper’s Bugloss, Snow Tower or Tower of Jewels is surely one of the single most impressive flowering plants in the world.
Originally hailing from the Canary Islands, Echium throws up a huge flower spike unlike anything else you’ve ever seen – sometimes as much as 12 feet (3.5 meters) into the air. To say that Echium will grab the attention of your visitors is something of an understatement.
But if you’d like to try your hand at growing Echium then how do you get started? In this article I’ll discuss my own experience of growing Echium from seed right here in the UK. As you’ll learn, it’s entirely possible, even in cooler, damper climates.
When to Plant Echium Seeds
Echium seeds can be planted at almost any time of year and tend to germinate quite readily. However for best results I recommend planting Echium seeds early in the spring. A planting time of March to May is ideal for most species.
Echium does not like cold, damp weather. As a result, they need all the help they can get through the winter in most temperate areas of the world. The bigger your Echium plants are at this point, the more likely they are to survive through to the next spring.
Smaller plants, started later in the season, can struggle. In contrast, those that have a bit of girth to them before the seasons change seem to have more resources to call on to survive through to the following spring.
How to Plant Echium Seeds
Planting Echium seeds is reasonably simple. The seeds of Echium seem to have a good germination rate, and the young seedlings grow at an impressive rate under ideal conditions. No fancy conditions or techniques are required. To grow Echium from seed follow these proven steps that I’ve used time and again:
Choose a Suitable Pot
For a plant that can grow to 12 feet in height in the space of just 2 years it’s hardly surprising that Echium is a fast-growing plant. It is worth bearing this in mind from the very outset. Even seedlings have impressive growth rates. To avoid having to continually repot your Echium plants I recommend starting your Echium seeds in a decent-sized container.
A plastic flower pot of 4-6” across works well, as does a seed tray of a reasonable depth.
Fill the Pot to ~ 2cm From the Top With Multipurpose Compost
A range of different composts can work with Echium seeds, however I can report excellent results with commonly-available multipurpose compost so this would be my recommendation.
Fill the pot till you get close to the top then firm it down with the eventual aim of reaching a couple of centimeters (roughly 1”) from the very top of the pot. This will provide a decent depth of compost for your Echium to establish their root systems.
Loosely Scatter the Seed over the Compost Surface
Echium seeds are quite a reasonable size and are therefore pleasingly easy to manipulate and plant by hand. Loosely scatter your Echium seed onto the surface of the compost, keeping several centimeters between each seed.
Add a Further Covering of Compost
While Echium seeds tend to germinate best when exposed to bright sunlight they also benefit from a small covering of compost. Add a thin covering of finely-sieved compost that your Echium seedlings can easily push their way through in time.
Label the Pot
If you’re like me you’ll have dozens of different seeds being started in the springtime. Make sure you carefully label your Echium seeds before you go any further, so you don’t end up wondering what this mystery pot is when suddenly seedlings start to sprout from the surface.
Soak Container in Lukewarm Water
While Echium comes from typically dry Canary Islands, the seeds still benefit from a moist environment when it comes to germination. I like to pop the pots into a tray of lukewarm water and let the compost soak up as much water as it can. The pots are then removed after half an hour or so, and left to drip dry so any excess moisture has escaped.
Cover Pot to Retain Moisture
While you don’t have to cover your Echium seed tray it can help to retain the all-important moisture. Laying a clear plastic bag over the surface is an ideal solution. Remember that Echium seems to appreciate sunlight when germinating, so don’t add anything that may block out the light – such as coloured plastic.
Alternatively it is possible to grow Echium from seed without covering the pot if you’re willing to be very organised about routine watering.
Place in a Warm, Sunny Area
Possibly the most crucial aspects of all when growing Echium from seed is then placing the pot into the ideal location. Different experts seem to disagree about the specifics of what works best, but in my experience a sunny and warm location seems to work best.
If you’re planting Echium seeds later in the season, say in May, then placing the seeds in your greenhouse or a polytunnel can work very well indeed. Earlier in the season, however, nightime temperatures in unheated greenhouses can be too low to tempt your Echium to germinate.
If, like me, you opt to plant your Echium seeds much earlier in the year, then place the pot of seeds on a warm, sunny windowsill and keep a close eye on it. Some gardeners even choose to add supplementary heating with a propagator or a soil warming pad to “kick-start” the Echium seeds into growth.
Check Pot Regularly for Drying Out or Germination
Lastly, keep a close eye on your Echium seeds. I have found that the seeds often germinate quite quickly under the conditions outlined above, sometimes in as little as a few weeks. Furthermore, the seedlings grow at quite a healthy rate.
As a result it makes sense to keep a daily watch on your Echium seeds for any sign of germination. When this occurs, remove the plastic covering of the pot so the seedlings can stand upright.
Also, on these daily checks satisfy yourself that the compost is still moist, and rewet if necessary.
Growing on Echium Seedlings
As soon as your Echium seedlings are large enough to handle they should be separated into individual containers to grow on. It is best to take a long-term view of growing Echium in containers as they’re likely to need some extra love in the winter months (discussed below).
A pot with a diameter of around 6” works well for most first-year Echiums.
I recommend following the same approximate guidelines for planting seeds – a good quality multipurpose compost works well. At the same time it is important to appreciate that Echiums don’t like to get waterlogged. Therefore some growers opt instead for a more free-draining compost like a John Innes for their Echium plants.
Once the last frosts have passed you have a number of options for your Echium plants. Personally, I grow them in my unheated greenhouse, where the warmth really helps to kick their growth-rate into top gear.
However Echiums can also be grown outside even in temperate areas like the UK or North America. This is most easily done in their pots, so that they can be returned to a more sheltered spot over the winter.
Echiums appreciate a warm area in full sun, where they are protected from strong winds. Placing the pots near a south-facing wall or fence, for example, tends to work very well. Any Echiums that I place outside are positioned against the outer wall on my greenhouse, which naturally warms up very quickly in the morning and then bathes them in this heat all day long.
As mentioned, Echiums don’t like to have constantly damp roots, so keep your watering modest throughout their lives.
While I do plant my Echiums out in the ground, personally I only do this in their *second* season as described below…
How Long Do Echiums Take to Flower?
In most cases your Echium seedlings will flower in their second season. Sometimes, if started very late in the year, it may even take three years for them to flower.
While I will admit that it is disappointing not to see your Echium in flower in their first season, little can compare with the excitement of the following spring rolling around. As your Echium plants spring back into life you can rub your hands in expectation as to the floral display you can look forward to that year.
The crucial element is really keeping your Echium plants going through the long, cold, damp winter period so they make it through to the spring to flower.
Is Echium a Perennial?
Most Echiums are biennial not perennial. This means that they flower in their second year of growth, then will set seed and die off.
I have heard a few situations of Echium growing as perennials in very warm and sheltered areas, but for most of us you’ll probably want to plant a succession of Echium seeds each year to guarantee a summer display every year.
Equally, in very tough winters, and if not given suitable protection, it is possible that your Echium plants could die off in the cold and wet. It’s fair to say that Echiums are a bit more “touchy” about their growing conditions than many other popular garden plants.
How to Overwinter Echium
Overwintering Echium is crucial to their successful growing. After all your efforts getting the seeds going, the last thing you want is to lose your Echium plants before they get a chance to flower.
Most Echiums are considered half-hardy and don’t respond well to freezing temperatures. They’ll therefore need a little help to make it through the winter and reach the flowering season.
This is why I recommend growing Echium in containers their first year – the pots can be easily relocated to a frost-free area over the winter.
For best results, bring them indoors and leave them in a cool room with modest light. Keep watering to a minimum during this period to prevent the roots from rotting and otherwise treat as a houseplant until spring.
Almost as effective, and the method that I myself have been using, is to place the Echium plants into a greenhouse. Mine is unheated, and so it’s pretty cold during the winter. That said, the temperature rarely drops much below freezing for more than a few days at a time.
I will say that Echium plants grown in an unheated greenhouse over winter are still at risk. It’s quite possible that some of your plants may die in the cold and damp. Even those that do survive will gradually look ever more depressing as time goes on.
Don’t give up hope as leaves wilt and stems turn brown. Don’t throw them on the compost heap without giving them a fair chance to recover in the spring.
Many of my Echiums look terrible by January or February, but as soon as the warm weather rolls around they’ll normally explode into growth once again. One day you’ll check on your unhopeful, sorry-looking Echium plants and you’ll notice a whole load of fresh, juicy green leaves bursting out of the top of the plant.
This is cause for celebration – you made it!
Of course it goes without saying that a heated greenhouse is a lot more effective for overwintering Echium but is far from a necessity.
Where to Plant Echium
By their second spring your Echiums should have recovered and will be growing strongly. The sooner the warm weather of spring begins, the quicker your Echium plants will be triggered into growth.
Now is the time to consider where to actually plant out your Echiums for best effect. As with the smaller seedlings, only consider doing this once the last frosts have passed – which could be April or May in many temperate areas.
When the time comes, either pot up into a larger container for flowering, or if your soil is well-drained consider planting out into your beds.
Echiums love well-drained soil, and a warm, sunny growing position. A south-facing area with sunshine all day long works well for them.
Lastly, consider that some Echiums will grow incredibly tall, so may be at risk of wind-damage. A sheltered area, such as next to your house, a garden wall or a tall fence, can all help to give extra protection to your Echium plants.
Collecting Further Seeds
With patience all your efforts will be rewarded. By early summer in the second year you’ll see your Echium’s start to grow up towards the heavens at an alarming rate. Eventually blooms will open all the way up the stem, creating a truly mesmerizing display.
Fortunately, if all that effort has been worthwhile, your Echiums should produce a generous supply of seeds. These can be collected, stored in a cool, dark place and planted again when the fancy takes you.
As Echiums are normally biennial it is wise to collect more seeds than you think you need. In that way you can plant a few more seeds each year, keeping that continuity going for years to come.