Eryngium x oliverianum

This spiky herbaceous perennial is related to the sea holly which still grows wild on a few sandy shores in Britain. It is a striking plant for the summer border, both flowers and stalks being a metallic steely blue. The leaves are blue-green, spiny and deeply cut. It grows 2 to 3 feet (60 to 90 cm) tall, and the branching stalks bear glinting conical flowers circled with bristly bracts, like those of wild teasel. Miss Jekyll, skilful with words as well as plants, described it as having ‘an admirable structure of a dry and nervous quality’.

It needs a dry, sunny place with very good drainage – sandy or chalky soils suit it well – and the roots go very deep, making it impervious to drought. The artist John Piper, ‘a great man for thistles’, grows it in the parallel borders of his farmhouse garden in the Chilterns, with echinops, giant annual sunflowers, rud-beckias, golden rod, and other traditional cottage flowers. It is excellent for cutting and drying for winter bouquets.

Three plants, 18 inches (45 cm) apart, would make an exciting group in any flower border, though Miss Jekyll, usually working on a grand scale, used eryngiums in bold masses.

Some gardeners prefer the taller E. giganteum, with paler, silvery flowers, known as ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost’, but this is biennial, and must be re-sown.

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