Saturday, May 7, 2011

Tower of Jewels (Echium wildpretii)

This is a post I’ve been waiting to write since I started my blog last fall. I’m happy that the time has finally come. Do I sound mysterious enough?

A year and a half ago, I bought two very special plants in 4" containers. I put one in the backyard, and the other in front. The one in the backyard turned to mush last October, but the one in the front hung on…grew…thrived…and has now started to bloom. I’ve been taking photos since October, and now I can finally reveal them.

The mystery plant is Echium wildpretii, or Tower of Jewels. Native to the dry slopes of Mount Teide on the island of Tenerife in the Canary Islands, Tower of Jewels (called tajinaste in Spanish) is a biennial that forms a rosette of fuzzy grayish leaves in its first year before producing a tall inflorescence (up to 10 ft in its native habitat) densely packed with flowers in its second year. After flowering and setting seed, the plant dies, but it leaves behind thousands of seeds that scatter as the dried up “tower” falls over.

Tower of Jewels prefers a dry and sunny position and demands well-drained soil. It tolerates temperatures down to the 30-28°F range but quickly dies below that. The same is true for its relative Pride of Madeira (Echium candicans), which has become quasi-naturalized along the Northern California coast and is such a stunning sight in the spring.

Here is a sequence of photos that shows you the development of our Tower of Jewels between October 2010 when it just was a 2½ ft rosette and early May 2011 when it started to bloom.

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October 27, 2011                                                 March 28, 2011

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April 4, 2011                                                       April 11, 2011

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April 16, 2011                                                      April 22, 2011

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          April 26, 2011                                                May 6, 2011 (5½ ft tall)

The tower is packed with flowers that are absolutely stunning the way they are arranged.

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Close-up of the flowers arranged around the tower in a spiral pattern. Note the two different sizes and colors of flowers: larger fuchsia-colored ones in the front, and small bluish-purple ones in the back.

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The flowers are a bee magnet. By mid-day, the entire tower is a hive of activity. I can hear the buzzing of the bees as soon as I step out onto the front porch.

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We’re not the only ones growing Tower of Jewels in Davis. The Ruth Storer Valley-Wise Garden at the UC Davis Arboretum has quite a few, as does Central Park Gardens in downtown. My daughter and I saw five or six of them in bloom last weekend as we went for frozen yogurt.

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              Central Park Gardens                     My almost 10-year old daughter for scale

If you live in a nearly frost-free climate and have a sunny spot, there are very few plants you can grow that give you more impact—and make your neighbors stop in their tracks.

If you can’t find Tower of Jewels in a local nursery (Capital Nursery in Sacramento has 1-gallon plants), here are some mail-order sources:

Annie’s Annuals & Perennials, Richmond, CA (4” plants)

Rare Exotic Seeds, Montreal, CA (seeds)

6 comments:

  1. Wow! What about attracting hummingbirds? Have you noticed any?

    I wonder if it would be possible to overwinter this in my garage? You should send me some seed when you have some. :-)

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  2. Alan, the flowers look like they would be perfect for hummingbirds, but I haven't seen any yet. I'll definitely collect seeds and will send you some. If you overwinter the rosette in your garage, you should be able to get it to bloom the 2nd year.

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  3. That's a really good sequence of photography Gerhard! I've always found the foliage of this plant very attractive, let alone the massive flower spikes.

    They say that if you get this to flower once in your garden then you're sorted for supply for life, with plants sprouting in random places for year to come. Hopefully you'll get a succession of blooms from now on :)

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  4. Mark and Gaz, I can't really let the tower collapse because it would crush other plants, but I'll try to save as many seeds as possible.

    Like you, I really like the foliage and would grow it just for that.

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  5. Just googled 'tower of jewels' (saw it on Alan's blog) and this page came up - couldn't resist commenting; This is absolutely stunning! The foliage alone makes it worth having. The blooms would be a bonus for me. AWESOME photos!! Fabulouys post!!

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  6. Christine, thank you for your kind words! If you'd like some seeds, just let me know. It's a biennial plant, i.e. it flowers in its 2nd year, then dies.

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