Dear Readers, I have seldom been so excited upon receiving a photo from a friend. This plant is growing out of a gap in the paving next to my friend’s garage, but it will hopefully grow into one of the most spectacular members of the Borage family.
What an astonishing plant it is! I have spotted it before, at Inner Temple Gardens and at Kew Gardens, and the flowers are always absolutely abuzz with bees. The flower spike can grow up to 13 feet tall, but if you look at it closely you’ll see the close resemblance to our native Viper’s Bugloss.
In the first year, the plant grows a rosette of leaves (as seen in my friend’s photograph), followed by a trunk up to 8 feet tall. In its second or third year, the plant grows that flower spike, which can extend by up to 2 cms a day. After this, the plant is likely to die, but not after producing more than 20,000 seeds. My friend tells me that someone had an Echium in their front garden just down the road, so her plant is probably one of its ‘children’.
No wonder the bees like it so much – the nectar is over 26% sugar. Butterflies and moths are also attracted to the flowers. In the wild, Giant Echium is endemic to the island of La Palma in the Canary Islands, where it forms part of the laurel forest habitat – this is critically endangered as agriculture takes over. However, there are more examples of the plant outside its native range than in it – it is clearly now growing in the wild here in East Finchley, and it is such a striking plant that I’m sure it will be carried into gardens all over the world. In their book Alien Plants, Clive Stace and Michael Crawley speculated that the plant would probably only become naturalised in the warmer parts of the country, but I wonder – the RHS recommend protecting it from frost, but it can get pretty chilly in the Canaries so I wonder if it is hardier than we give it credit for. There are certainly reports of the plant growing in sheltered spots in North Wales, Yorkshire and the Midlands, and the seedlings seem to be able to overwinter, so quite possibly evolution and climate change will combine to produce a plant that can survive in many parts of the UK. I suspect that it will need protection from the wind though, I could well see such a stately plant coming a cropper in my front garden. Let me know if you’ve seen any examples of the plant, and how they seem to be doing? I am most intrigued.
The species name ‘pinanana’ means ‘pine-like’, and I can kind of see a resemblance. In the plant above, the flowers are opening from the bottom of the inflorescence and working their way upwards, rather like a sparkler.
I liked this article, which describes some of the other Echiums that are available. All of them like free-draining soil, and it seems as if it’s the damp that’s the real problem rather than the cold.
Goodness, I am very inclined to give them a bash, even if it’s only in a pot. However, all Echiums have to be handled carefully, because their coarse hairs can cause skin irritation, and should you be tempted to have an Echium sandwich I would resist, as they are toxic and cause liver damage. Also don’t let your thoroughbred have a nibble, as they are particularly poisonous for horses.
And here, to my astonishment, is a poem (I didn’t expect to find one actually called ‘Echium pinanana’, but here it is!) This is by Julian Bishop, and you can find more poems by him, and by some other splendid poets, on the Wildfire Words website here. Have a look at the poem ‘Better Things’ by Elizabeth Woodgate too, as a marmalade maker myself I enjoyed it very much.
Echium Pininana by Julian Bishop
Imagine a plant structurally aligned to the Eiffel Tower
scaled down to the proportions of herbaceous border
thrusting its way heavenwards with unstoppable desire
in spring. Each whorl of leaves, arranged like a propellor
circling the hirsute stem, bristles with stubble-like fur
nettling the unguarded finger with stings. Afterwards
you spend hours extracting each one with tweezers.
The highest highlight of this monster Viper’s Bugloss:
its pinky-cum-blue funnelled blooms: catnip for bees
assuming its fleshy rosettes pull through a late frost.
In Cornwall and the Scillies they grow like chickweeds,
but rarer than hen’s teeth in Tenerife due to habitat loss.
Last year in London I grew a crop from some eBay seeds
and every garden visitor was convinced they were trees.
Photo One by By Derek Harper, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13490883
Photo Two frank wouters, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Three by Tim Waters at https://www.flickr.com/photos/tim-waters/4983356877/