After my attack on bedding plants, I thought I’d look at something a bit more positive and focus on an easy to grow plant that is both ornamental and good for wildlife. I am working through the module on plant choice in my RHS course. The big focus of this unit is plant knowledge, so I’m planning to write in a bit of detail about a few plants to secure my knowledge. Today I am going to focus on Echinops, gloe thistles. They fit well within many styles of garden. Popular in the perennial border both for cottage-style gardening and prairie gardens. Piet Oudolf makes use of the architectural flowers within his designs. Alternatively, they are nice within cut flower arrangements. With a changing climate, they are a tough plant capable of coping with a bit of drought.
They are members of the Asteraceae family with around 120 species. This is the daisy family, though the flowers don’t share the traditional daisy or sunflower shape. They usually form blue or white spherical heads. They have a wide geographical spread with some native to Europe and then ranging across Asia and Africa. The most commonly grown species in the UK tend to originate from southern and southeastern Europe. Countries like Spain and Turkey. So, they have come from hotter dryer climates. Though they can still grow in our wetter conditions. They can be annuals, biennials or perennials, but the main ones for sale are usually perennial. That is they will return year after year for a period. However many self seed so will continue to give you free plants after the initial outlay.
They can grow quite large so they benefit from being given a bit of space and being grown in a clump with a few plants. Of the more popular varieties Echinops bannaticus grows about a metre to a metre and a half. Then Echinops ritro grows at about a metre. Echinops Veitch’s blue is a popular shorter option if space is limited. It is also less prone to self seeding.
The leaves have the standard look of thistles. They are serated building to the point. While they look spikey they aren’t massively harmful. They grow best in free draining soil in full sun. When planting you can improve draiange with the addition of some organic matter. But they will tolerate clay building long tap roots. Just, ensure water doesn’t sit around the surface of the plant. After watering in initially they will need watering while settling. But, once they are established they are fairly drought tolerant and don’t need any additional feed to keep them going. They generally disease free but can suffer with aphids. After the first flowering of the year they can be cut to the ground to encourage a second burst of flowers.
The flowers are rich in pollen and nectar making them an excellent choice for wildlife gardening. The seeds, if left, are a food source for birds. However, some people don’t like them self seeding so dead head before.
They look good as a clump on their own in gravel gardens. When combined in the garden they work well with echiverea. Pink ones complimenting quite well. Alternatively large grasses are often used. Cardoons work quite nicely giving you different heights of ball flowers. Piet Oudoulf made use of agastache with it’s upright blue spires of flowers to compliment the balls of the echinops.
Propagation is pretty straight forward. They can be sown by seed in spring or self seeders collected and moved to the desire locations. They can be divided in early spring or autumn. Or root cuttings can be taken when dormant in winter.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my little examination of echinops. Hopefully I’ll write a few more detailed profiles of plants to help build my knowledge before the RHS exam for this unit.