“The Majestic Echium Wildpretii: A Breathtaking Sight After a Decade of Anticipation”

The Tower-of-Jewels, Echium wildpretii, is a stunning plant that adds to the beauty of our spring display at Longwood Gardens. This plant is known for its towering height and striking appearance, earning it the nickname “tower-of-jewels.” Although it stands at a considerable height, its tiny salmon-colored flowers are what make it truly magnificent. As each cluster of flowers blooms gracefully along the plant, the stems stick out as if dancing from the tiny flowers, turning this tower-of-jewels into a whimsical display of beauty.

The Tower of Jewels is situated on the country island of Tenerife, located just off the coast of Morocco. Despite its small size, the island stretches 20 miles from north to south and 30 miles from east to west. Interestingly, the plant’s native island boasts various significant climates. Echium wildpretii thrives at elevations ranging from 4,200 to 6,500 feet above sea level, in the sub-alpine zone. Yoko Arakawa captured a photo of this beautiful plant.

The E. widrpretii is thriving in its natural habitat on the Canary Islands, as captured in a photo by Yoko Arakawa.

The Echoium wildpretii is a monocarpic plant that blooms from late May to June and is pollinated by bee-like insects. It is classified as a biennial plant since it typically flowers in its second year, depending on the length of cold treatment. In the wild, it will bloom in late May or June and then transform into skeleton-like spikes after flowering and setting seed due to the island’s dry climate. Photo credit goes to Yoko Arakawa.

In the landscape of Santa Catalina Island, plants of Echium grow upward. Even when they are dead, Echium wildpretii can be described as having a graceful beauty. According to our records, the first seeds of Echium came to Longwood in 1983. It took years of extensive research on how to best grow this remarkable plant until it was first displayed in Longwood’s Conservatory in 1991. Now, more than two decades later, the tall tower-of-jewels has become essential to our spring display. Growing Echium at Longwood presents quite a challenge when compared to the plant’s natural habitat – with rocky and volcanic soil slopes, dry, hot summers, and wet, cold winters – our hot, humid summers, and cold, dark winters pose quite a challenge. Since it takes about 15-16 months to flower, we begin growing the plant from seeds more than a year ahead of time. Our gardeners then carefully monitor the plants’ growth to ensure we have a beautiful display for the spring.

In the propagation house, we have E. widgerii seeds that look drastically different from the mature Echium plants that go into our displays. The twin leaf seedlings have rounded and spotty leaves. We continue to grow the Echium through summer and into fall in our greenhouses. As they grow, we plant them in larger pots. At its largest, an Echium widgerii plant will fill a 7-gallon pot. Photo credit goes to Yoko Arakawa.

Before blooming, echium plants go through a growing process in the greenhouse. While they are exquisite at all stages of growth, producing flowers makes them exceptionally magnificent and highly anticipated. Just before blooming, the plants resemble a silver fountain, with their thin whitish leaves extending outward. To encourage the plants to set flower buds, we subject them to a cold period (around 45 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit) for four to six weeks minimum. This is meant to simulate the winter climate. By February, the plants start spiking in preparation for flowering.

Here is a sign that a flower is about to bloom. The photo was taken by Yoko Arakawa. The center of the plant starts twisting beautifully like a little whirlpool signaling the upcoming bloom. Soon after, Echium wildpretii flowers turn into a true tower of jewels and are planted into the beds of our Conservatory.

The addition of large pink flower spikes brings unique interest to the spring display. Make sure to take note of this exceptional plant from the Canary Islands that can only be viewed during Spring Blooms as you walk through the Conservatory in the coming days and weeks. Photo credit goes to Yoko Arakawa.

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