Garden Notes No 35, 2021, Echiums (the pain, the glory, the jealousy etc)

my dead Echium fastuosum, early march

I’m still looking for signs of life, finding it hard to believe that it’s dead. But every day it looks deader than the day before. The damage was done during that cold week in february, but at first it seemed it might survive.

Here’s the story of my echium. It was planted in a sheltered spot in the spring of 2017. The following winter nearly killed it. I protected it with a blanket of fleece on frosty nights which helped a bit. It looked wretched in the spring, but recovered and grew well. The next winter, 2018 to 19, it nearly died again. But it recovered again. The summer of 2019 was hot, it grew strongly. Then the winter of 2019 to 20 was very mild. It must have felt at home – it comes from Madeira. Then came the beautiful lockdown spring, and it flowered for the first time.

Echium fastuosum, April 2020

On a spreading bush were five flower spikes. And then it grew all through the summer until it promised twenty or so spikes this spring. Here it is in December. This picture is also a good illustration of why December, though dark, is not yet winter. Not here, anyway.

Not long before I retired from St Mungo’s (Putting Down Roots, their garden project), we planted one at St George’s, in the Borough. Having no idea whether it was dead or alive I had a wonderful surprise when I went back there two or three years later:

The wonderful Echium fastuosum at St George’s, SE1

By last year though, it had disappeared. It’s always going to be a gamble, unless you live in the Isles of Scilly. More reliable, at least in London and Cornwall and parts of Devon, is E. pinninana, the giant echium. Here it is at St John’s, SE1, where it is naturalised:

Echium pinninana at St John’s, Waterloo, 2020

This one is a biennial, or to be accurate, it’s monocarpic. This simply means that, like annuals and biennials, it only flowers once. But unlike true biennials, it usually flowers in its third yearn not in its second. It sees to flower when it’s ready to flower; warm summers and mild winters help greatly. And although it’s not as tender as E. fastuosum, cold winters kill it. Prolonged cold is the real killer. A night of frost is not so bad. That week we had in February, each day a little colder than the last, the frost penetrating deeper into the soil every day – that was bad. Slow and painful.

E. fastuosum (also known as E. candicans) begins to flower in April. Here it is in my garden last year, with honesty:

Echium fastuosum and honesty, April 20

And E. pinninana flowers a little later. Here it is on the same day, still in bud. In its spring rush it grows in a matter of weeks from about three feet high to over ten feet:

Echium pinninana, April 20

Bees go mad for both kinds.

A neighbour of mine had a very impressive E. fastuosum in his front garden, and through the first lockdown people came to warm themselves at the brazier he had going and to admire the flowers. I told him what it was! He had bought it at the plant market in Columbia Road the previous year, he didn’t know what it liked, how to care for it, what it would do. He stuck it in an empty space and was amazed when it produced seven or eight perfect spikes of flowers in the spring. He hadn’t nursed it through two cold (cold for echiums) winters! I was jealous. But at least I named it for him. Then last December or early January it began already to produce new, tender flower spikes. I was sure they would die. I have several healthy cuttings which I took from my plant last summer and have kept happy in the greenhouse. I imagined consoling him in spring with a healthy young plant. But his is still almost perfect. Even the incipient flowering shoots are alive. Some were damaged, a few look as if they will die, but most of them still hold the promise of beautiful flowers. Maybe mine has died because, although it looked so good at the end of last year, the stress and injury of the two hard winters which it survived had weakened it, whereas my neighbour’s plant is youthful and vigorous.

A few days later, March 15…. a surprise twist to the story – the other day I saw that although most of the shrub looks ok, the very tips, the flowering shoots of my neighbour’s plant are withered and shrivelled. So they were foolishly precocious. And yesterday, almost determined to uproot my own sad echium, I saw this:

A scrap of life.

And I have my cuttings in the greenhouse, of which the smallest and latest, taken in late summer from a broken shoot, actually has a flowering shoot, in fact it’s almost all flowering shoot.

Echim fastuosum cutting, barely one foot high

Here we are in a world of chemical complexities and how flowering is triggered that I know nothing about. I do know that when you take summer cuttings of pelargoniums and salvias you should avoid flowering shoots or even shoots with tiny flower buds. When the plant is set on flowering it doesn’t like to produce new roots; the chemical balance within it changes. Somehow this late summer cutting has rooted and also retained the message to produce flowers. And I do know that being pot-bound and so prevented from growing leafily and vigorously will often induce flowering, so that a shrub which seduces at the garden centre may not flower again for a couple of years after you plant it out in your garden.

Enough of things I don’t understand. Last year I didn’t include this lovely little scilla among the spring flowers I showed:

Scilla mischtschenkoana

Is it because of its name that it’s not better known? Say after me: misht – shen – koana (like koala). P.I. Misczenko was a nineteenth century Russian botanist, apparently. My book doesn’t say where all the extra letters came from. Maybe an attempt to latinise the Russian name? But why put a ‘t’ in the middle? Anyway, it’s an easy bulb, (and cheap to buy, though not often seen in garden centres – I got mine from Parker’s by mail order) and soon multiplying to tight little clumps, beginning to flower in late february, and soon to be past its best. The touch of cold blue is lovely. It likes woodland conditions.

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