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What is Echium?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 29 October 2016
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Echium is a genus of flowering plants with an estimated 60 individual species. It is part of the family Boraginaceae, the borage family, also known as the forget-me-not family. Some Echium species are cultivated as ornamental plants in some regions of the world, and in other areas they are considered invasive species. For people considering cultivation of a species in this genus, it is a good idea to check invasive species listings for the region before buying seeds or seedlings.

This genus is native to North Africa, Europe, and the islands found in this region of the world. The plants prefer full sun and coarse, well-drained soil. They are not very fastidious about nutrition and have low to average water needs. Echium has evolved to thrive in harsh conditions and can be very successful in a garden when it is left alone.

The appearance depends on the species, but most produce tall spikes of blue to purple flowers, with broad leaves. Some have fine hairs on their leaves and stems and these hairs can break off, causing skin irritation in people who brush against or handle the plants. Echium species are commonly biennials, spending the first year putting out foliage and the second year developing flowers. Some can be cultivated as annuals.

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Warm climates are necessary for many Echium species, although others are adapted to thrive in the short summers of cooler regions like England. The exact climate requirements vary by species. Many species do not transplant well, making it advisable to sow seeds where the plants are wanted rather than using starts and seedlings, although some hardier Echium species are available as seedlings at nurseries and garden supply stores. The plants will also reseed themselves after a season; if a gardener does not want a return visit in the next year, the flower heads should be cut down before they have a chance to go to seed.

Some species have edible parts, such as the flowers and shoots, and may play a role in traditional cuisines in the regions where they are native. To be edible, it may be necessary to scrape or clean the plant to remove the hairs. Echium flowers can be seen in use as garnishes on prepared food dishes and in flower waters, and may be safely eaten when they are used as garnishes, although diners might want to watch out for stray prickly hairs.

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