Epic Echium

An exotic, tall-dark-and-handsome visitor has returned to the Chicago Botanic Garden this spring. Its bold blooms draw pollinators in as well as Garden visitors. What is it, you ask?

Some of the most unusual plants our Production Greenhouse team grow for our display gardens are six species of Echium, a biennial plant that produces giant spikes of flowers—but not right away. Echium take two years of growth to become the epic plants you see throughout the Garden. You won’t find these Dr. Seussian plants in many other gardens in the Midwest (if you do, please let us know).

Echium are native to the Canary Islands, regions of the west coast of Africa, and southern Spain/Portugal. They are not hardy plants in Chicago, meaning they cannot withstand our winters outdoors. Growing them requires strict cultural practices to ensure their successful flowering.

Echium fastuosum (Pride of Madeira)
Echium fastuosum, or Pride of Madeira
Echium pininana 'Blue Steeple'
Echium pininana ‘Blue Steeple’

The team starts the plants from seed in November, transplanting seedlings into smaller pots to establish healthy root systems, before placing them in a cool greenhouse for the winter.

The following spring, they are transplanted into their final growing container and moved outside. They are grown in a semi-shaded location and fertilized regularly all summer.

Echium 'Red Rocket'
Echium ‘Red Rocket’

In fall, they are moved into a protected nursery quonset, with temperatures of 42-45 degrees Fahrenheit all winter long. (It is called vernalization, and it is a process by which keeping a plant in colder winter temperatures induces a bloom cycle.) The Echium‘s second spring—about 20 months after sowing the seed—is usually mid-to-late March; they begin to set flower buds and elongate their flower spikes.

An assortment of colors of Echium fastuosum, or Pride of Madeira, is a focal point of the Heritage Garden this spring.
An assortment of colors of Echium fastuosum, or Pride of Madeira, is a focal point of the Heritage Garden this spring.

You will find Echium growing in beds and containers outside the Visitor Center, in the Heritage Garden, and the English Walled Garden. These stars of the show are hard to miss! As you come across them, we hope you, like us, think of the team of skilled horticulturists who cultivate these “wows” each year—as well as nearly 70,000 spring annuals and vegetables.

Learn more about these Echium on display in our Plantfinder.

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