One of the great advantages of gardening in Britain is the opportunity to grow an enormous range of plants. For this we owe a great debt to the plant hunters, who have furbished our gardens with treasures gathered, often under considerable duress, from around the world. We may not have the opportunity to travel and collect plants from the wild as they did but we can share a little of their sense of excitement when we discover plants on holidays, find we can buy them legally and then bring them home.
Many years ago I had the good fortune to visit the Canary Islands while leading a gardening cruise. At the time, was only familiar with our pretty blue flowered native Viper’s Bugloss, (Echium vulgare) and Echium pininana, reaching 12 feet or more and known to gardeners from visits to gardens with kindly microclimates like Abbotsbury Subtropical Garden, where they are star plants. An exciting find, when researching the flora of the Canary Islands, was another less well known, endangered species Echium wildpretii, whose largest population is found near the top of Mt Teide in Tenerife, (12,198 fet) with a subspecies on La Palma; their only two native habitats in the world. This pink flowered species totally captured my imagination, so imagine my surprise, when packets of seed from cultivated sources were for sale in the newspaper kiosk outside Jardin Botanico in Puerto de la Cruz and much to my excitement one is due to flower very soon, in my Hertfordshire garden, many miles from its high mountain home.
It is biennial, growing in gritty soil, in a south facing border reserved mainly for Mediterranean shrubs and species bulbs. It is allowed to seed in situ – winter protection, with horticultural fleece is essential in most winters as they dislike damp. If grown in pots in the greenhouse with inadequate ventilation they soon rot off – their natural habitat is in a sub alpine zone growing on volcanic pumice.
I have seen them flowering in books, patterns on plates, been sent a mobile phone picture of a plant by a travel agent I sat next to on a plane, seen videos of them rocking stiffly in the wind, have seen them shattered and ‘freeze dried’ by icy winds after flowering and even enjoyed the honey but never seen them flowering in the wild, an ambition as yet unrealised. In the meantime, they flower occasionally in my garden, the last time was four years ago (below) and this year, it is about to happen again – I can’t wait!
Matthew Biggs @plantmadman
Matthew Biggs has presented numerous television programmes, notably Channel 4’s ‘Garden Club’, stepped behind the camera to direct Meridian Television’s popular gardening series ‘Grass Roots’ and worked as Horticultural Consultant for a garden design series on Channel 5.
Matthew contributes to several magazines, including the Royal Horticultural Society Journal – The Garden, BBC Gardeners’ World, Countryfile and Gardens Illustrated and leads gardening tours worldwide.
He lectures regularly including at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, Oxford University Botanic Gardens. Matthew is also a regular panellist on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Gardener’s Question Time’.
For more on Matthew visit The Peoples Gardener