How to grow echiums

Echiums, such as viper's bugloss, are attractive, bee-friendly plants suitable for a variety of garden types

Echiums are related to borage and share similar characteristics, such as hairy stems and leaves, and nectar-rich flowers that are loved by pollinating insects. There are around 40 species of echium that grow across Europe and Asia. These range from the common Echium vulgare, also known as viper’s bugloss (the seed looks a little like a snake’s head) to the gigantic Echium pininana or tree echium, which can grow to around 5m. The taller varieties originate from the Canary Islands, so will only grow in similar conditions and need protecting from frost in the UK. However, they will usually self-seed prolifically, so will colonise your garden if allowed to. Be careful when handling them as the sap can irritate the skin and all parts of an echium plant are toxic if eaten.

How to grow echiums

Echiums can be annual, biennial, perennial or semi-evergreen. For best results, grow them in full sun in free-draining soil. Some varieties do well in containers. Collect the seed of annual and biennial echiums in autumn to resow the following spring to summer. Alternatively, let them self-seed around your garden.


Where to grow echiums

Echium 'Blue Bedder' growing at the front of a border
Echium ‘Blue Bedder’ is best grown at the front of a border

Echiums need free-draining soil to enable them survive wet winters. They thrive in full sun but will tolerate shadier situations – they might become misshapen as they grow in the direction of the light. Some varieties grow well in large containers, which may be the best option for the more tender perennial varieties, as they will need to be overwintered indoors.


How to plant echiums

Echiums can be grown from seed. Sow hardy annual varieties such as Echium ‘Blue Bedder’ direct in spring for flowering the same year, or in autumn for flowering the following year. Sow biennial varieties such as Echium vulgare and Echium pininana in seed trays or small pots from late spring to early summer, lightly covering the echium seeds with vermiculite. Keep moist but do not overwater. Transplant seedlings when they are large enough to handle, planting them into their final growing positions in their first year to avoid root damage.

They can grow well in a variety of locations, including coastal and gravel gardens, banks and slopes, cottage gardens and wildflower meadows.


How to care for echiums

Common carder bumblebee visiting purple echium flower
A common carder bumblebee visiting a purple echium flower

Echiums are pretty robust plants, given the right growing conditions, for example, in full sun and in free-draining, moderately fertile soil. However, the more tender varieties need protection during cold winter weather, either in a cold greenhouse or a conservatory if growing in pots. If growing in borders, use fleece to loosely cover the crown of the plant.


Growing echiums from seed and taking cuttings

Annual and biennial echiums will self-seed readily. Alternatively, you can collect seed to ensure you don’t end up with plants in the wrong place. Keep them in a dry envelope over winter and sow them the following spring to summer.

You can take cuttings from shrubbier species such as Echium fastuosum, either as softwood cuttings in May to June or as semi-ripe cuttings from August to September.


Pests and diseases

Echium pininana flower spike
Echium pininana produces blue-flowered spikes that can reach a height of 4m

Echiums are rarely troubled by pests and diseases, although young plants can be damaged by slugs and snails, despite their hairy stems and foliage. If growing tender echiums in the greenhouse or conservatory, they may be affected by red spider mites and whitefly. Varieties grown in pots could be susceptible to vine weevil.


Advice on buying echium plants

  • All echiums need sun and free-draining soil, while more tender varieties need protection from frost and cold winds. Make sure you have the right conditions for growing echiums before buying
  • Bear in mind that most echiums available to buy from seed are biennials so you won’t see them flower until the following year
  • Always check plants for signs of damage or disease before planting

Where to buy echiums online

Echium varieties to grow

How to grow echiums - echium amoenum
Echium amoenum flowers emerge red in late spring, then fade to pink or purple

Echium pininana is one of the more recognisable varieties with its dramatically tall spires. Biennial, it will self-seed readily in the right spot. The Royal Horticultural Society has given it its Award of Garden Merit (AGM)

Echium vulgare is a biennial wildflower, good for attracting pollinators, especially bees. Rosettes of slender, bristly leaves appear in the first year, followed by spikes of blue bell-shaped flowers, larger than the Canary Islands species. It’s perfect for growing in a wildlife garden or at the front of a sunny border

Echium amoenum ‘Red Feathers’ is a perennial variety, but rather short lived. The plumes of flowers are pinkish red. It’s a good filler for sunny borders and is also good for growing in a pot. Deadhead spent blooms to encourage repeat-flowering and protect during harsh winter weather

Echium webbii bears tall spikes of brilliant, violet-blue flowers. It’s perfect for growing in a sunny, sheltered spot or sunny patio. A biennial, it flowers in its second year, so young plants need protection through harsh winters

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