Cork is known as a city of “Steps and Steeples”. Some were designed by famous architects like William Burgess and George Pain. Nearby at Cobh Cathedral, the work of Edward Pugin and George Ashlin towers over the sea. Summer brings a different kind of steeple to the Frameyard and gardens of Fota House, this time designed by Nature. It’s called Echium pininana or Giant Viper’s Bugloss. This beautifully structured plant even has its own bell-like flowers. They don’t ring out like carillon bells but on a sunny day they sing with the sound of bees.
Echium pininana is native to La Palma in the Canary Islands but nowadays it is rarely seen growing in the wild due to a decline in its natural habitat of native laurel forests.
Echium pininana is a biennial (or even triennial) plant, showing little more than leaf in the first year but subsequently producing a thick stemmed, tall spike showing a mass of leaves and small flowers. It’s worth waiting for. After flowering, from May to August, the plant dies back completely. If seeds don’t germinate where they land, they can be cultivated under glass in Spring. Because it is biennial, seeds should be sown every year to ensure continuous flowering in the garden.
Echium pininana is part of the Boraginaceae (borage) family. The species name pininana and the synonym pininifolium come from the botanical description “pinnate” which describes the arrangement of the leaves on either side of the stem. The name Echium comes from the Greek, Echis, meaning viper. This is thought to come from the shape of the seed which is said to resemble a viper’s head. The name may also come from the fact that the mottled stem looks like the skin of a snake. The word bugloss is also of Greek origin, relating to ox-tongue, a reference to the roughness and the shape of the leaves of the plant. There are 60 identified species of Echium.
One species is Echium wildpretii or Mount Teide Bugloss, which has red flowers. The plant grows in the ravines of Mount Teide on Tenerife. It grows in the subalpine zone of the ravines of Mount Teide, where it gets a lot of sun and enjoys nutrients and minerals of the volcanic soil. It’s easy to see why it is called “Tower of Jewels”.
Echium vulgare , “Viper’s bugloss”, is described as one of the best plants for attracting bees and butterflies, on account of its copious nectar. It is popular in garden borders. Smaller than the giant species, it can grow to 2 ft or so. One of the reasons why bees love this and other Echium is because it has some unusual features, including the fact that nectar inside the flower is protected from vaporisation (when hot) or being flushed away (when it rains). This plant produces nectar throughout the day unlike most plants which produce nectar for only a few hours at a time. If the bees have good access to Echium vulgare they can collect between 12-20 lbs of nectar a day. Its deep roots allow it to thrive in poor soil and is commonly seen growing wild in uncultivated areas.
For a less positive, if not downright hostile, attitude to Echium we turn to Australia and some parts of the USA, where Echium plantagineum is considered a noxious weed, hated by all except bee-keepers. This plant, much like Rhododendron ponticum in Ireland, it is an invasive species which has spread over huge swathes of this continent. Various strategies have been put in place to counteract this plant which is toxic to grazing animals (particularly horses) when eaten in large quantities. The most successful of these strategies was the introduction of certain insects which feed on the plant. The plant is also called “Paterson’s Curse”, a reference to Jane Paterson, an early settler in Victoria who planted Echium plantagineum in her garden. Given its self-seeding habit, the plant soon spread to nearby pastures and from there across millions of acres of Australian land.
Despite its exotic appearance, Echium pininana is easy to grow in the right conditions. It needs shelter from too much wind or cold, (temperatures below -6) though it is half-hardy. Seeds can be sown in late Spring and will germinate between 21 to 45 days. These seedlings can be transplanted into larger pots which should be overwintered in the glasshouse the first year and planted out the following Spring. The plants can also be grown entirely in large pots kept in a conservatory or a suitably large and warm space.
Once planted in well-drained soil, it grows quickly and in its flowering year, some plants can grow from a height of between 1 and 2 m to over 6 m between February and mid June. If it has sun on all sides it will grow upright but often the plants can be seen leaning or curving towards the light. Despite their considerable height they do not require staking. During the late autumn and early winter the seeds are scattered widely by wind. Given that each cyme has 19 branchlets, each of which has 20 to 30 flowers and that each flower produces up to 4 seeds, it’s not surprising that a large-sized plant may well carry over 200,000 seeds.
The warm earth in Fota (Fód te) suits Echium pininana. But while the plant grows mainly in southern parts of Ireland and the UK, there is evidence that it is increasingly surviving in more northerly regions. This is thought to be because the self-seeding new plants are becoming hardier due to natural selection. So we can look forward to a more widespread distribution of the plant. In the meantime, come to Fota to see these astonishing blue giants thriving and bringing colour to our summer gardens.
Image of Echium vulgare: https://www.redbubble.com
Image of Echium wildpretti: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Echium_wildpretii
Image of Echium plantagineum: http://weeds.dpi.nsw.gov.au/Weeds/Details/102