Eryngium, the sea holly, is a fascinating plant. Evergreen rosettes of dark green tooth edged leaves give rise to branched erect steel blue stems and flower heads surrounded by spiny bracts. Rarely seen at nurseries, these are considered treasures here. It has been frustrating trying to propagate this guy. Research has shown claims of reseeding itself easily, yet every effort by this gardener to help the seeds along have been a failure. The few seedlings that have appeared near the mother plant are in spite of, rather than because of my efforts. Many seeds have been purchased with high hopes of a sea of sea hollies.

When the hill was first planted, three eryngium alpinums were mail ordered from three different companies. Drought loving, hardy, sun loving, they should have sent their roots down, down, down into the well drained slope in which they were planted. Two died, one lived and was moved to the other side of the steps where the only other neighbors were the bearded iris. This is the sunniest spot on the steep slope.

Year after year the seed heads were gathered and planted, inside, outside, covered, uncovered. Nothing grew from them. Finally the seed heads were left on all winter, not being cut until spring, and then the dried bits were rubbed between my palms over the entire bed.

After years of palm rubbing, a lone baby emerged. Success! It is still not known what the trigger was to finally get a seed started plant.

The branches are staked as insurance against the plant toppling over when in full flower with a strong gust of summer breeze. The whole plant stands in its dusty color without shearing all winter . In March the flower stalk will be cut to the ground to make room for the new spike. The height of bloom is mid July here. A few seedlings emerge in late summer each year now.

The color is difficult to photograph well. The blue color is like no other. It hardly looks real. The secret to successful germination may never be understood, by me anyway.

The iris have been moved, they have been disappointing even with prompt division and the sea hollies need more deserving neighbors. Blackberry lilies, belamcanda, has been spread around the area, along with stipa tenuissima. Both of these are self seeders, and along with the sea hollies, a vision emerges of the waving sea of blue among grasses and seeds heads going into fall. This is the first year since the moving and planting of iris and stipa. Time will tell if the vision is fulfilled.

The eryngium most easily grown from seed, so it has been written, E. Miss Wilmott’s Ghost, shown above, produced one plant, one time, it died and left no descendents. Ellen Wilmott, the story goes, was a gardener who would sprinkle seeds that had been stashed in her pocket, without permission, while touring unsuspecting host’s flower beds. The plants, her ghosts, would pop up, surprising the garden owners long after her visit. May her ghost walk through Faire Garden and do a little sprinkling, please.

Looking for the sea in my garden,


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33 Responses to Eryngium

  1. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    Frances I just love this plant and I don’t know why I have never tried it. I see it at the nursery every spring and yet I haven’t tried it.

    Jodi is always talking about her various types of Eryngium too. I think your post has put me over the edge. I will try some this spring.

    I discovered a few years ago that I was too neat at the end of the season. By that I mean I cleaned up and dead headed too much to allow plants to naturally drop their seeds for natural propagation. Maybe you were being a little too neat too.??

  2. Frances says:

    Lisa…the previous me may have been too quick to clean up, but the newly evolved me lets things be for months. Do give eryngium a try. I am tempted by the variegated one new this year, Jade Frost, offered by Wayside, among others.

  3. chickenpoet says:

    I hope my start from you grows to be that glorious. I don’t remember mine glowing so blue like that. Good morning and much love.

  4. Frances says:

    chickenpoet…it took a couple of years for the eryngium to get that large. They color better in full blazing sun.

  5. Pam/Digging says:

    I keep meaning to grow this one too. Your photos show off its color beautifully. What’s your favorite pairing with it?

  6. tina says:

    Hi there.
    Thanks for your help and comment about viburnums. It helped me learn something new and I hope to have many more berries on my M. Airy this year!

    I grew these one year. I loved them and a few seedlings did come back, but petered out. Mine were not in full sun so that is part of the problem. Looks like you have yours there so you should have a great crop.

  7. Frances says:

    pam…it is finicky for sure, but like the lavender I just keep trying. The vision this year is the blackberry lily, belamcanda, which has orange and yellow flowers and blooms at the same time, along with the stipa. Last fall helenium ‘mardi gras’ and hesperaloe were added. I think all these like the dryish sunny poor soil fertility spot of the eryngiums. We shall see.

    tina…petered out is a word that could be used for so many plants here also. There is a major vision for the viburnum area, all the shrubs are new last year, all mail ordered so they are very small. Berries and fall foliage is the goal. We shall see on that one too.

  8. jodi says:

    Great post! As Lisa noted, I’m very smitten with Eryngiums, and planning to get a couple of these hot new types this year, providing I can source them at local nurseries. One of our beds is called the butterfly garden (in memory of my former mother in law), but also the sunset garden, as the predominate colours are yellows, reds, oranges, etc. I have two big clumps of blue to cool things a bit; a clump of blue Lobelia syphilitica, and a huge patch of E. planum. The sea holly is near a collection of rudbeckias of various species and cvs, and they really set one another off.

  9. aud says:

    i checked out the renegade and come to find out he’s only about 30 minutes from my house. If you have any other websites I’d greatly appreciate the info. I cannot get over how extensive your plants are. I love it. Talk later. Aud

  10. aud says:

    I am curious how you decide which plants to put in your sunroom. Are they simply plants you had in pots, or is it plants you brought in that are too delicate to make it over winter.

  11. Frances says:

    jodi…Thanks. I have quite a few rudbeckia seedheads still on the plants, maybe they will be scattered in the eryngium bed. There is a prostrate blue veronica in there also for spring color. Most of my beds have a good variety of plants, volunteers are welcomed. At least those iris are out, they take up a lot of room and offer little most of the year.

    aud…lucky you living close to the renegade. Check out blotanical, click on the badge on the sidebar of this site. Good luck.

  12. Frances says:

    aud…The plants in the sunroom are there because they cannot winter over outside here. In the summer, the sunroom is empty. All plants would rather be outside, although some need shade, like the orchids. The room is not big and only the best and favorites get to come in. Seeds are started in there in the spring also.

  13. Sherry says:

    What beautiful pictures! It’s motivating me to try some new plants this spring.

  14. Robin's Nesting Place says:

    I’m going to have to look for this one also. I love that blue color!

  15. brokenbeat says:

    the blue sea holly is a plant that, in the best of times, will thrive like mad horned hummingbirds in the mating season, but, as you said, must be given its due sunlight and shotty soil. i say the above as an admirer of what other people (namely you) have done, but this year, having mail ordered a four inch pot of our own, i hope to have this pretentious bugger grace the sunny northern stage of casa brokenbeat. bloom, blue, bloom? we shall, of course, see.

  16. Frances says:

    sherry…welcome. If you have a sunny dry spot, give them a try!

    robin’s nesting place…the color is amazing, good luck with yours

    brokenbeat…you may have to add some grit to your soil, what cultivar did you order?

  17. brokenbeat says:

    not quite sure. rookie mistake.

  18. chuck b. says:

    Very strange–Eryngium should self-sow. It sounds like you’ve covered all your bases tho’. Maybe your soil too “good”?

  19. Frances says:

    chuck b…now there’s a novel idea, good soil. The soil at Faire Garden is ‘as is’. The compost and bags of stuff go on the vegetable garden. The bed where the eryngiums were has never even been mulched. That may be why the iris did so poorly. There is some self seeding, but scant. Maybe one or two babies a year. Those are nurtured along and that is why there are the eight or so plants there now. But I want more!

  20. Benjamin Vogt says:

    I’ve wanted this for years, as well, like many others commenting. And reading through the comments, it appears it ought to do well in my clay soil, parched by nearby tree roots, in full, blasting, windy, NE summee heat. Too bad they need staking, but already so much on the plains needs staking–makes gardening darn difficult.

  21. chuck b. says:

    Yeah, I don’t get it.

    Seeds need good contact with the soil to imbibe water and soften the coat. Maybe you should mulch them or something after the sowing assist.

    I like that you got plants from different sources… that’s what I do to get good genetic diversity in hopes of getting vigorous seeds.

    It sounds some seedlings do germinate, but then fail to thrive? That’s why I asked about the soil being too high quality.

    But I don’t know.

  22. Frances says:

    chuck b…once we have germination it is no problem. It’s just getting that seed to sprout. Maybe mulch would help get more to do that. Thanks for helping.

  23. Frances says:

    Benjamin Vogt…If surrounded by neighbors of similar height maybe staking would not be needed. Mine have been grown with irises until this year. We shall see if staking is still necessary. Welcome and thanks for commenting.

  24. Kylee says:

    I have found Eryngium to be quite fussy. But I love it and continue to grow it and buy it when it doesn’t show up in the spring.

  25. Frances says:

    kylee…yes it is fussy, but worth the effort.

  26. chuck b. says:

    So, I was reading in Sunset Western Garden about something else, and it occurred to me to look up Eryngium while I was in the book.

    They say *some* Eryngiums self sow, and an example of one that does is E. giganteum (Miss Wilmott’s Ghost). It does not say anything about the self-sowing virtues of E. alpinum (Alpine Sea Holly).

    Does that information square with your research? Maybe you want E. giganteum, not E. alpinum?

  27. Frances says:

    chuck b… thanks for your perserverence on the mystery of the lack of self seeding. That all of mine are E. alpinum may be the answer. As I wrote the Miss Wilmott was the lone grower from a packet of seeds. She produced no children that I can identify, the leaves are longer and the flowers are also elongated. It seems the best solution is to try another packet of Miss Wilmott.

  28. chuck b. says:

    So, you did already know? I wasn’t sure. Sorry to be redundant.

    It does also say Miss Willmott’s Ghost dies after flowering. It also agrees with you about the leaves and flowers.

    Sounds like the mystery is solved!

  29. Frances says:

    chuck b…Sorry to have misled you, I did not know that the alpinums would not self sow. I thought they all would, not just Miss Wilmott. Originally I bought the three alpinums and planted seeds from giganteum. The few seedlings have all been alpinums so far.

  30. chuck b. says:

    I ordered some Miss Wilmott’s Ghost seed. Honestly, I’m not a huge fan of Eryngium, but I have an idea of where I could use it.

    And it’s a rainy day, so…

  31. Frances says:

    chuck b…I am interested to know how the eryngium will grow for you in California, being that it likes the hot and dry supposedly, it could grow ten feet tall.

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