The Conservatory at Longwood Gardens boasts a striking and unique plant known as the “tower-of-jewels” or Echium wildpretii, which is an essential part of our spring display. Although it stands at a modest height, what sets this plant apart is its tiny, salmon-colored flowers that bloom into graceful curves among the stems. The stamens of each flower protrude like dancers, creating a whimsical display of beauty that truly enhances our spring exhibit.
The Tower of Jewels can be found on the beautiful Canary Islands, specifically on the island of Tenerife. This small island is located just off the coast of Morocco and measures only 20 miles from north to south and 30 miles from east to west. Surprisingly, this island has several different climates due to its varying elevations, ranging from 4,200 to 6,500 feet above sea level in the sub-alpine zone. One notable plant species found on the island is the Echium wildpretii. Photo credits to Yoko Arakawa.
In its natural surroundings on the Japan Islands, the E. widriptii plant thrives. A beautiful photo of it was captured by Yoko Arakawa.
In natural landscapes, the Echium plant produces beautiful flowers that attract bee-like insects from late May to June. It is categorized as a monocarpic plant, which means that once it has flowered, it dies. However, it is commonly viewed as a biennial since it typically flowers in its second year, depending on the length of cold treatment. In the wild, Echium wildpretii blooms in late May or June. Then, after flowering and seed setting, the island’s dry climate transforms the plants into skeleton-like spikes. A photo by Yoko Arakawa showcases the stunning Echium flowers in their natural habitat.
Succulent plants flourish in the landscape of Santa Catalina Island. Even in death, Echium wildpretii exudes a graceful beauty that is captivating to behold. Our records indicate that the first seeds of Echium arrived in Longwood in 1983, and extensive research was conducted to determine the best way to grow this remarkable plant until it was first displayed in Longwood’s Conservatory in 1991. Now, more than two decades later, the towering jewel-like structure has become essential to our spring display. Compared to the plant’s natural habitat of rocky and volcanic soils, dry summers, and wet, cold winters, our hot, humid summers and cold, dark winters present quite a challenge when growing Echium at Longwood. 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 carefully monitor the plants’ growth to ensure we have a beautiful display for the spring.
In the propagation house, we have Echium seeds that have just sprouted. These seedlings look completely different from the mature Echium plants that we display; they have rounded and spotty leaves. We continue to grow the Echium throughout the summer and into fall in our greenhouses, where we transfer them to larger pots as they grow. At its largest, an Echium wildpretii plant can fill a 7-gallon pot. Photo credit goes to Yoko Arakawa.
Before blooming, echium plants go through a growth process in the greenhouse, producing exquisite features at all stages. However, when the plant starts producing flowers, it becomes exceptionally magnificent and exciting to watch. Just before blooming, the plants resemble a silver fountain with thin white leaves extending outward. In the first week of November, when the plants are nearly a year old, they receive a cold period of about 45 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit for four to six weeks minimum, simulating winter climate, prompting them to set flower buds. By February, the plants begin spiking in preparation for flowering.
This sign indicates the start of a blooming flower. Photo taken by Yoko Arakawa. The center of the plant begins to twist beautifully like a little whirlpool signaling the upcoming bloom. Soon after, Echium wildpretii flowers into a true tower of jewels and are planted into the beds of our Conservatory.