Monday 25 June 2018

Spiky but perfectly formed

Globe thistle’s botanical name comes from echinos, or hedgehog, and it’s easy to see why
Globe thistle’s botanical name comes from echinos, or hedgehog, and it’s easy to see why

Gerry Daly

Globe thistle is an unusual flower because of its perfectly globular shape. Being uncommon, the globe shape is very eye-catching and instantly contrasts with most other flowers nearby. There are some other flowers that have the same shape, such as alliums, drumstick primula and pompom dahlias. In all cases, they are striking and very decorative.

The globe thistle is well named for its shape and its thistle-like appearance. It is a member of the thistle branch of the daisy family. Its botanical name is echinops, derived from the Greek word echinos, a hedgehog, and it is easy to see the reference in the spiky look of the flower heads.

The entire rounded head is composed of tiny individual florets. These start off as rounded buds on the tips of tall branching flower stalks. Even when small, they are spiky and pointed. When they reach full size, they open and little blue, curving petals are pushed out. After pollination, the petals wither but the bristly seed-head remains.

There are a few kinds of globe flower. The usual kind grown in gardens is Echinops ritro, which is the most compact, grows to about 120cm and makes a solid clump of sturdy stems with dark green, spiny leaves with some grey webbing and white undersides. The flowers are grey-blue and open blue in late summer and into early autumn, about 5cm across. The form 'Veitch's Blue' has darker blue flowers and keeps on flowering.

Flowering earlier, from July and into September, Echinops bannaticus is about the same size with greyish-blue or pale blue flowerheads and the variety 'Blue Globe' is dark blue with flowers 6cm in diameter. There is a white variety called 'Albus' which creates a dreamy look in a border.

There are some big species, such as Echinops sphaerocephalus, which can tower to two metres and looks very dramatic with large spiny, grey-green thistle leaves on the tall stems and 6cm globe flowers. The tall kinds are too big for ordinary gardens but might be considered if space is available.

Globe thistle is native to Central and Southern Europe and eastwards to India, growing in dry rocky places and dry grassland, much as its thistle relatives do wherever they appear. Echinops thrives in dry, poor soil in full sunshine. The kinds mentioned are very robust and easy to grow. If grown in rich fertile soil with plenty of moisture available, they tend to grow leafy and taller than they might otherwise be. Over-fed plants may need staking, which is not needed on dry soil. In the right conditions, they may self-sow, and seedlings appear nearby. If this is not wanted, the spent flowers can be taken off. However, the seed-heads last well into winter and the globe shape is retained, becoming even more dramatic.

How do I stop bindweed taking over?

Query: Can you recommend a spray to kill the growth of ivy and bindweed which are growing under my laurel hedge? They are taking over at a fast rate and I would appreciate your advice. P Leahy, by email

Answer: Ivy is best chopped out from under a hedge with a spade. Its roots are weak. Chemical products could damage the hedge, but glyphosate-based spray can be carefully brushed on to bindweed leaves. The active substance is taken down to the roots. This product doesn't work so well on ivy, so removal by hand is best.

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