Tuesday, 22 May 2018

The Pride of Madeira

A Bugloss known as Pride of Madeira

Pride of Madeira in Sintra (Photo: Steve Andrews)

The Pride of Madeira is the common name for a spectacular looking shrub in the Echium genus of plants, many species of which are known as types of Viper’s Bugloss or “Taginaste” in Spain. Known to botanists as Echium candicans, the Pride of Madeira comes, as its name suggests, from Madeira, but it is often grown in gardens and parks throughout Iberia and in many other parts of the world. Its popularity is hardly surprising because it forms a very large bush that is covered in spring and early summer in magnificent flowering spikes of purplish-blue flowers with red stamens. The Pride of Madeira will definitely catch your eye and is very attractive to bees and other pollinating insects too, as are the other species in the Echium genus.

Red Bugloss or Mt Teide Bugloss

Red Bugloss on Tenerife (Photo: Pixabay/Public Domain)

The Canary Islands are home to very many endemic types of Echium and the Mt Teide Bugloss or Red Bugloss (E. wildpretti) is a plant symbolic of Tenerife where it grows high on the mountain it is named after. This unusual plant is a biennial that produces a large rosette of leaves in its first year which is followed by a tall flowering spike in its second year. The tiny flowers are a pinkish-red but there are many thousands of them and its flower spikes can grow to as much as three metres in height. They stand out like weird red wands above the otherworldly and barren terrain on Mt Teide, which is the highest mountain, not only in Tenerife but in all of Spain.

The Red Bugloss is a very rare plant in the wild, and only found on Mt Teide and around the village of Vilaflor which is also high in the Tenerife mountains. The plant has evolved to be adapted to the cold nights and bright sunlight by day of the habitats it is found in, though it is also grown at lower levels of the island in parks and gardens. Because of its tall flowering spikes it is one of the bugloss species often called “Tower of Jewels.”

Giant Viper's Bugloss

The Giant Viper’s Bugloss or Tree Echium (E. pininana) is the best-known Tower of Jewels bugloss. It reaches four metres in height in good conditions, and like the Mt Teide Bugloss is very rare in the wild. It is only found in the laurel forested mountains of La Palma in the Canary Islands, however, it has been commonly grown for some years as an unusual garden flower in the UK and Ireland, where sometimes it gets featured in news stories because it grows so tall.

Wild Viper’s Bugloss species found in Iberia

Viper's Bugloss (Photo: Pixabay)

There are many types of Echium found growing in the countryside of Iberia, including the type species Viper’s Bugloss (E. vulgare), which is found throughout Europe and has become naturalised in North America. It has pinkish flowers which turn rapidly blue and it is also known as Blueweed. It likes to grow in sand dunes and waste places but will often do better in cultivation in the garden where it will get larger. The Viper’s Bugloss, by the way, takes its name from the tiny forked nutlets that it produces that were thought to resemble the heads of snakes, and because it was once regarded as an antidote for the bite of an adder. The herbalist Coles tells us in his Art of Simples: 'Viper's Bugloss hath its stalks all to be speckled like a snake or viper, and is a most singular remedy against poyson and the sting of scorpions.”

One species of Echium that is very common, not only in Iberia but elsewhere in the world is known as Patterson’s Curse (E. plantagineum). Its name gives a clue to how it has become regarded, because although this small species looks pretty when it creates a small sea of purple flowers, it is an invasive weed of arable land that spreads rapidly. Isn’t it interesting to consider how some bugloss types are very rare plants while others are common weeds?

Grow a Tower of Jewels and Feed the Bees and Butterflies

Most species of Echium have a lot of nectar-filled flowers making them very attractive, not only to our eyes, but, as already noted, to bees and pollinating insects. Butterflies too love to find their food in the flowers of a Tower of Jewels. It is easy to find seeds of the various species that are easy to grow in our gardens by searching on the Internet for “Echium seeds” or “Tower of Jewels seeds”.

Growing these amazing plants can not only really beautify our gardens but be a real help to the bees and pollinators that are often struggling in the world today. Cultivating a Viper’s Bugloss provides eye candy and aids conservation!

NB: Text originally published in Mediterranean Gardening and OutDoor Living magazine, Issue 25, May 2016.

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