by Matt Gibson
Anchusa azurea is a tall perennial and one of the few flowering plants that produce truly blue blooms. Flowers with buds that start out a light pinkish-lavender eventually turn to a vibrant and pronounced blue shade. Some flowers will be an immature pink while budding, and simultaneously, others that are mature will be blue, giving the plant a bi-color appearance that adds contrast to the flower bed.
The anchusa azurea needs full sunlight, deadheading, structural support, and a supply of moist, but very well-draining soil. Perhaps due to this plant’s tendency to die from rot if overwatered or if the soil doesn’t drain to its liking, the anchusa has earned a somewhat misleading reputation for being fussy and rather hard to grow. With the proper growing environment and just a bit of extra care, however, you can have plenty of success growing anchusa. And though it’s true they have their specific care needs, these beauties are surely worth any extra effort that they may require. Once you put in the effort, you will be the proud owner of true-blue flowers that tower above the rest of your flower garden.
The small blue flowers that the anchusa produces are very similar to those of its relative the forget-me-not. Usually grown as a biennial, this short-lived perennial bursts into clusters of tiny—but bright and vibrant—blue flowers atop stems that rise as high as three to five feet and measure about two to three feet in width. Expect a glorious array of blossoms from this profuse bloomer from late spring to early summer.
The foliage of the anchusa takes the form of low clumps of dark green hairy leaves. The anchusa plant is in the borage family, and its hairy foliage will remind you of borage if you have grown it before.
In addition to providing a splash of true-blue color to your garden beds, fresh anchusa flowers are not only edible but quite tasty. They can be added to salads or used as a beautiful garnish. Though anchusa specimens may be hard to find at your local gardening center, there is no shortage of their seeds available online.
Anchusa azurea is also known as Italian alkanet, blue bugloss, Cape Forget-Me-Not, dropmore flower, and Italian bugloss. The word “bugloss,” despite beginning with “bug,” actually has nothing to do with insects. Instead, it’s derived from a Greek word that means “ox tongue” and most likely refers to the rough texture of the plant’s foliage. The genus name, “anchusa,” comes from the Greek word “ankousa,” which is the name of a root pigment that was once used cosmetically as a paint for staining skin a fashionable hue.
A word of warning: Anchusa is known to be a strong attractor for bees, so you will want to plant it away from your patio or entertaining area, especially if you are allergic to bee stings. These blue blooms will most likely bring buzzing bees to your garden in droves during its flowering season. You should also handle anchusa azurea with care, as its bristly texture has been known to irritate sensitive skin on contact.
Varieties of Anchusa
The Main Cultivars:
Anchusa Dropmore: This variety grows three to four feet tall and produces bright blue flowers atop upright stems. The dropmore cultivar is hardy in USDA zones 3-8.
Anchusa Feltham Pride: This midsummer bloomer produces bright blue flowers like the dropmore, but they form atop branched stems that spread out more in width than the dropmore’s do. This variety is also hardy in zones 3-8.
Anchusa Opal: This type of anchusa produces pastel blue flowers that sit atop upright stems. Hardy in zones 4-8, the opal variety can grow from four to five feet tall and blooms from late spring throughout the summer.
Anchusa Little John: This smaller variety grows between one to two feet in height, but it has a very prolonged blooming period to make up for the physical shortness. Its upright stems produce racemes of large cup-shaped dark blue flowers.
Anchusa Loddon Royalist: This cultivar won the Award of Garden Merit by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) for its single, flat-looking, deep blue blossoms that sprout atop erect branching stems in the summertime. The Royalist is best propagated by root cuttings taken late in the fall and is hardy in zones 3-8.
Anchusa Capensis: Usually grown as an annual, this biennial grows to 18 inches high and produces a massive yield of cluster-shaped flowers that form dense groups. A recent hybrid, Anchusa capensis blue angel, rises only nine inches high and produces a compact dome of blue flowers.
Anchusa Angustifolia: This short-lived annual produces vibrant gentian blue flower clusters atop a 10-inch stem from May to August.
Anchusa Cespitosa: This low-growing, hardy perennial produces compact clusters of bright blue flowers featuring a white eye in the center of the flowerhead. The cespitosa variety only reaches two to three inches in height and measures about six to nine inches in width at its base.
Growing Conditions for Anchusa
Plant anchusa in full sunlight in a sharply draining soil. If there is a hint of standing water or stagnation in the ground, anchusa plants are likely to give way to rot and soon die, so aerating the soil is a key factor in providing a healthy growing environment for anchusa plants. Treat this plant similarly to lamb’s ear or lavender when it comes to hydration, ensuring that soil becomes moist when watered but allowing that water to quickly drain away and never pool.
Because of this single stipulation, anchusa has been deemed a hard flower to grow by some gardeners. However, as long as you simply provide the correct environment, you should have success with anchusa without too much trouble. In some regions, anchusa is even considered an invasive species because it reseeds. Soil should be 5.5 to 7.0 in pH. Anchusa azurea is hardy in zones 3-10.
How to Plant Anchusa
You can start your anchusa plants indoors or outdoors, depending on preference. If you’re planting as an annual, sow them outside just before the last frost. If planting as a perennial, sow in autumn.
Anchusa are tap-rooted and therefore require extra deep planting holes to accommodate their long roots. Transplant your specimens into holes at least five inches deep so that their roots will have space to grow correctly and obtain the proper amount of nutrition and water. Do not attempt to transplant anchusa during the growing season, or you may damage the tap roots.
Space each plant 10 to 30 inches apart. If starting indoors, allow seven to eight weeks for germination before moving outdoors. Transplant outdoors after the last frost has passed.
Care for Anchusa
Deadheading spent flowers will promote new blooms and prevent them self-seeding (assuming you don’t want your anchusa to take over your garden beds). Mulch in the winter to protect anchusa’s root system, but try to avoid covering the plant’s crown with mulch, as this species is highly susceptible to rot. In fact, because anchusa’s foliage can start to deteriorate after it blooms, it’s standard practice to regularly cut the faded flower stems down to the base to encourage additional growth.
With taller varieties of anchusa, you will want to use stakes for support, especially in windy areas. That’s because this plant is prone to falling over when it grows to full size, and taking such a tumble can damage the stems or even kill the plant entirely.
Garden Pests and Diseases of Anchusa
The most common problem gardeners experience growing anchusa is rot due to insufficient drainage. However, other common problems include leaf miners and powdery mildew.
Where to Plant Anchusa
Italian bugloss is considered a showy plant, so you might get the urge to highlight it in your garden as a showpiece. However, due to the foliar deterioration that usually occurs during the summer, anchusa is not a great fit for the starring role—unless you don’t mind losing your centerpiece halfway through the blooming season, that is.
Instead, take advantage of anchusa’s showy nature as well as its height, and let it tie the bed together by looming tall in the back row of a flower border. Then when the time comes to trim anchusa down to the ground to hide the browning leaves, your summer bloomers will still be shining in the center.
Videos About Anchusa
This video slideshow presents a great group of pictures of several different varieties of anchusa azurea:
This is another beautiful picture-based video that shows many different glimpses of the anchusa azurea in bloom:
Want to Learn More About Anchusa?
Better Homes & Gardens covers Blue Bugloss
Gardeners HQ covers Guide to Growing Bugloss, Summer forget-me-and Alkanet
Gardenia covers Growing Anchusa Azurea (Italian Bugloss)
Seasonal Gardening covers Anchusa
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