Tag Archives: Echium wildpretii

getting real

Echium wildpretii growing wild in Tenerife

Grow this plant and your garden will look exactly like this! (Yah, right… )

[ Right: Image of Echium wildpretii by Mataparda. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. ]

I’ve got to be realistic, I keep telling myself. The plant may be cool, but the whole effect probably won’t be much like how the plants grow in the wild or how they’re shown on some dramatically illustrated garden website.

It’s like buying clothes out of a catalog that are being modeled someone impeccably styled and impossibly toned. But because of the recession most of us have had to let our personal stylists go, and when you go to try on the clothes the look ends up being a sad disappointment.

For my last post, on my blooming echiums, I was having a hard time coming up with an attractive photo that showed the entire plant. The plants are growing in a tight corner of the garden that has a woodpile, a rusty shed and a big disorderly stack of stuff waiting to be dissembled and taken to the metal recycling facility at the landfill–not stuff I wanted to publish out there for all the world to see.

From one vantage point the studio walls act as a fairly neutral backdrop, but to take this photo my back was against the neighbor’s wall and I couldn’t get the distance I wanted.

The angles that showed off the plants better also showed off all the junk. Gag.

Okay, back to getting real. My garden will never look like the high volcanic slopes of Tenerife. It’ll never look like the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada, or approximate the wide vistas of our desert two hours to the east of here. Some of my plants may come from those places, but cultivating them won’t hide the fact that I live in a suburb with neighbors all around.

I guess I look at the garden as a scrapbook or photo album. A plant might have associations with somewhere I’ve been or would like to visit. Maybe I grew up with another of the plants. Yet another may be intriguingly cool even though I have no idea where it comes from. In arranging the plants, in making the garden, I can come up with something where my memories can mix with the shapes, colors and textures of the plants and produce something I like and hopefully will look okay to others.

Blooming now in one of my little bog gardens is a stream orchid, Epipactis gigantea, a plant with a huge pile of associations for me. (You can sort of make it out to the left in this photo.) Those memories go something like this: I was taking some of the rough Jeep roads in Saline Valley, a generally unvisited expanse of white sand immediately northwest of Death Valley. I’d camped one night on the west side of the valley at the mouth of a little canyon leading up into the Inyo Mountains. All night long I kept hearing angered challenges from the wild burros that called this area their home. The next morning I headed towards the canyon, keeping a wary eye on the burros that were never far away. Soon I started to hear water. I guess I’d unknowingly plopped myself on top of a trail leading to a water source for the burros–That would explain the angry noises all night.

Soon the canyon folded in around me, and I went from the glaring white hotness of the exposed valley floor to a cool, sheltered outdoor room. Water drizzled down a granite face in front of me. Ferns grew everywhere. And scarlet columbines. And dozens of this plant, the stream orchid, in peak bloom. Imagine that. Orchids in the desert. It was one of those peak outdoor moments that I’ll remember forever.

Well, the little bog garden looks and feels nothing like that May morning in Saline Valley, but seeing this little orchid will remind me of that encounter every time I see it.


This must be the year for my prima donna plants to finally decide to bloom. First it was the first bloom for me of the Agave attenuata over the winter. Now it’s this echium’s turn.

This is Echium wildpretii, which has gone from five feet tall two weeks ago to over seven and a half feet.

It’s also known by various common names, including tower of jewels, red bugloss, and–in Spanish–tajinaste. “Tajinaste”: what a gorgeous sounding name, way more musical than bugloss or “tower of jewels,” which sounds a little square to me, like a plant name from a 1927 seed catalog. Tajinaste is endemic to one Atlantic island, Tenirife, off the northern African coast.

This echium species is described as a biennial. Many plants described that way will put up leaves the first year and then bloom the second year from seed, after which the plants produce huge amounts of seed and then die.

Although it’s been known to flower in the second year, this plant’s usual interpretation of the term takes “biennual” literally as “two years,” keeping you waiting that long from sowing to flowering. And there’s one plant in the front yard that looks like it’s going to be taking an additional year. Biennial? I think not.

Still, worth the wait, don’t you think?

The plant grows in spirals. Here you can see the spiraling new flowers.

The central rosette of leaves just a few months before sending up the central bloom stalk.

During the two years you wait for it to bloom, you get to look at an attractive mound of lance-shaped coarse gray leaves, usually eighteen inches to twice that across during its second growing season. When nature withholds flowers you can always look at and photograph leaves. So here’s some of my little crop of Echium wildpretii plant photos.

Echium wildpretii leaves in soft focus

Some of the leaves develop these neat hook ends.

As you can see it’s an attractive plant even when out of bloom. It has low water requirements and looks clean until its final, spectacular exit. After a few months it turns from a big dramatic plant into a big dramatic dead plant with tendencies to topple even before its deep tap root decays.

Its reputation is that it’ll send seeds everywhere at that point, so this might not be the best plant if you live near the edge of a dry natural area. A related echium, pride of Madeira, (E. candicans) has established itself as a pest in some coastal areas of Southern California. I’ll get to see how bad it really is after these plants finally give out later this summer. I’ll worry about that later, but for now I’ll sit back and enjoy the plant.

morning drizzle

This morning the runners in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon are taking to the streets down the hill from me. It’s overcast and cool enough, for sure. But somehow I’m not feeling motivated to run 26 miles…

The locals have a name for these two months when the morning cloud cover blots out the sun: May gray and June gloom. It makes for a slow easing into summer, good running weather, and prolongs the season when you can hope to put plants in the ground and not have to worry too much about keeping them watered.

Yesterday was extra-cool, and the thick marine layer of clouds made for a heavy drizzle most of the day. For me the sight of raindrops on plants is rare enough that I grabbed the camera.

Are photos of raindrops and dewdrops on plants and flowers cliches? Dunno. Even if they are, I think there’s something so satisfying about them that people need to keep taking them.




Below are all the photos I took in smaller gallery format. Going left to right: images 1-4, flowers of sacred datura, Datura wrightii; 5-6, leaves on tower of jewels, Echium wildpretii; 7, spiderweb on California fuchsia, Epilobium canum ‘Catalina’; 8, flowers of deerweed, Lotus scoparius.

smaller echiums

In addition to the spectacular Echium candicans, you can occasionally find some smaller examples of the the genus. Because of the economics of the plant nursery industry, where people tend to buy stuff that’s in bloom over just about anything else, and because these plants have a relatively short–though spectacular!–blooming (read “saleable”) period, you don’t often see plants of them available. But seeds are a little easier to come by.

The J.L. Hudson catalog a little while back had four echiums available, including candicans (which there is listed under its fastuosum synonym). Of the others, E. wildpretii is occasionally sold in other seed listings, sometimes as “Tower of Jewels.” The plant is a beautiful rosette of long gray leaves the first year, about eighteen inches across, then in the second (edit, June 3, 2010: or third) year the plant shoots straight up six to ten feet with a conical tower of dark rose to carmine-red flowers.

Echium wildpretii

Echium wildpretii, growing wild on the flanks of the Pico del Teide, a dormant volcano, on the island of Tenerife. Photo by Grombo, from Wikipedia. [ source ]

My yard, at 60-some by 120-some feet, is maybe a little larger than typical lots in town, but it’s still not huge. A plant that grows like the skyscrapers downtown–narrow but tall–makes a lot of sense for gardens like mine, so I bought a big packet of wildpretii seeds. Here are the baby pix of the fuzzy little guys, at something like four weeks old:
Echium wildpretii seedlings

A little more warm weather–if it ever comes back–and they’ll be ready for the garden, ready to grow for a year in preparation for an outrageous flowering next spring. You don’t think a couple dozen or more of these rockets going off at once would be too much, do you?

From the Hudson listings I also got some seeds of E. russicum, similar in color to wildpretii and also a biennial, but something that’s more on the scale of a typical garden border. Enormous and fabulous is cool, but something that plays well with others should be nice to have around.