Anchusa – common names, Alkanet; Italian Bugloss and others – are either perennial or biennial plants grown in the garden for their masses of blue flowers that are similar in makeup to the beloved ‘Forget me not’ to which is closely related. Both are in the Boraginaceae family which is host to several other notable blue flowers.
Anchusa plants are characterized by their stem-less lance shaped leaves – often coarsely hirsute – which grow directly from the main stems.
The several types of Anchusa are universally sun lovers and relish dry areas – typified by their original habitats which include sunny hillsides, roadside verges and rock cliffs throughout many areas of Europe, Africa and East Asia. In UK gardens, they have preference for moist soil which is well drained and certainly not ever waterlogged.
Anchusa azurea and its forms are the ideal plants for gardeners wanting a little height, and a bright splash of bluest of blue flowers, in their beds or borders during late spring and early summer. Anchusa azurea are popularly upright flower stems with clumps of basal foliage generally forming a rosette of leaves. These are perennial but sometimes short lived, but this is dependent to a certain extent on cultural activities outlined below.
The small blue flowers grow in showy panicles up the stems – held above the main foliage canopy. They have several uses other than decorative garden plants, including herbal – being related to the Borage – medicinal and also as a source of dye from the roots. Here we talk of spectacular flowering garden plants.
Whilst blue is the dominant colour, some of the varieties are pink in bud, and as they open progressively can give a pleasing bicolor effect. But it is the radiant sky blue (azure) of the open flowers for which the plant is noted.
Anchusa azurea can have flower stems up to 1.4m in height, but at the same time taking u the least bit of space at the base.
‘Anchusa’ originates from the Greek work ‘Ankousa’ the name of the colouring pigment obtained from the root.
The flowering stems are without doubt sun worshippers, but the basal foliage and the roots prefer to be in slightly cooler surroundings. This can easily be attained by planting in perennial or other borders where low plants and foliage protect the base from the hottest sun - allowing the flowering stems to soar upwards in search of their preferred climatic conditions.
Plant Anchusa azurea in slightly moist – never wet – situations, and certainly not subject to long cold winter ground water. Free drainage is essential for longevity. They can be planted relatively close together for a spectacular show, and this helps protect the foliage below from direct sun.
During the growing season, the slender stems will need support – best with a cane or two and soft string tied in a loose noose around the stems. Otherwise cane each stem individually as the flowers develop. In driest weather only – water sparingly – but thoroughly – at the base, avoiding splashing the foliage if possible. Otherwise basal rot can set in.
After main flowering period (late spring) cut back the old flowered stems to just below the faded flowers which will encourage a second flush of flowers. Then, at the final flowering, foliage will start to look a bit jaded with dying edges. In autumn, cut Anchusa back, right down to the basal foliage clump.
The two methods normally used are sowing seeds or root cuttings.
Seed should be sown in late spring in a cool glasshouse or cold frame. These will germinate and be ready for potting individually in midsummer – or autumn.
The fleshy roots can provide root cuttings – simply cut the roots into 2-3in (6cm) lengths in winter and pot just below the surface of a sandy compost. These will sprout new growth in early spring which can be grown on until the autumn – ready for planting in flowering positions.
Untidy foliage towards end of summer; this is not disease unless caused by powdery mildew.
In wet weather and poorly drained soil, Anchusa can suffer from basal rot.
Anchusa ‘Feltham Pride’ has the brightest pure blue of the bunch – my opinion. Compact habit of growth, to maximum 90cm – 3 ft.
Anchusa ‘Loddon Royalist’ AGM has sturdy habit of growth and normally not requiring staking – unless in a windy situation. Deepest blue flowers, but still very visible. 90cms – 3ft.
Anchusa ‘Opal’ has pale blue flowers, but striking, with same growth habit as A. ‘Feltham Pride.
All have tinged pink new flower buds – opening to proper flower colour as the flowers develop from the bud stage.