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Plant of the month – giant viper’s bugloss

Echium pininana (giant viper’s bugloss)

Echium pininana or giant viper’s bugloss, is a big favourite within the gardening community and the public at Fulham Palace, being easily spotted in the knot garden and the walled garden, giving a slightly exotic (or Jurassic) feel wherever it can be seen. It is in the borage family (Boraginaceae) and beloved by gardeners and insects alike.

Echium pininana are biennial and known and loved for their immense flower spike of hundreds of small, delicate blue flowers and bracts that they produce in the second year of growth in mid to late summer. These inflorescences (flower clusters) can get as tall as four meters, providing brilliant height variation in planting schemes. The flowers open from the bottom to the top and you will soon find them covered in insects, grateful for the nectar. It really makes me think about the amount of energy that has to be put into producing the enormous flower spike!

Our knot garden in June - spot the echium!

Echium grow best in warm, sheltered sites such as our walled garden and some of our echium grow up to 2.5 meters. If you’re growing echium, shelter them throughout their first winter in a greenhouse if you can and protect them from pests. Then, try to keep them in a site that gets sun from all sides. They are real sun-worshipers, always growing towards the light and therefore they can grow quite wonkily if left to their own devices! We sometimes have to stake ours to keep them growing straight and prevent them from toppling in high winds.

By echium, that's an odd plant!

The long, coarse and hairy leaves that pleasingly droop in a rosette formation, are a great textural addition to a bed, and there’s no doubt that the leaves alone will catch your eye. This plant is a brilliant centre piece, giving you something really unique to stop and stare at all year round.

Echium pininana is endemic to the Canary Islands, restricted to the islands of La Palma and grows in the laurel forests, however it is unfortunately endangered due to habitat loss. The forest of Los Tilos is situated in a sheltered gorge on La Palma and has been granted Unesco world biosphere reserve status.

Our young Fulham Palace echium plants are growing in our vinery and will be sold on the barrow over the next few months. Keep an eye on our vinery barrow and you too could be the proud owner of one of these botanical behemoths!

by Millie Woodley, garden apprentice

Echium flowers provide a valuable nectar source for pollinators like this buff-tailed bumblebee