Viper’s Bugloss (Echium vulgare)
THE specific name vulgare never seems quite the right one to describe this handsome, imposing plant.
Perhaps magnificum or mirabilis would suit it better. It stands about 5ft high and its many hairy stems are covered in red spots. The leaves are pointed and prickly on the undersides and there is a thick woolly root that dies off in winter. In summer it is festooned with blue-purple flowers which are often covered with visiting bees.
It is found on light sandy soils, sea cliffs and dunes, and although quite rare, it can spread and become locally common. (Where it grows at Marske, in North Yorkshire, the dunes are known as the “blue mountain”.)
It also occurs on polluted ground, and according to the early records of its sighting in County Durham, it was found among rubbish at Winch in 1805, and in 1862 it was apparently common to find all the now rare colour varieties – including the rarest, white – on Old Hartlepool ballast- hills.
The viper reference stems in part from the flower heads. which are half-coiled. Each flower has red stamens protruding which give an excellent imitation of a snake’s tongue. As if that were not enough, the seeds are borne in a fruit resembling a snake’s head.
And what about bugloss? This comes from the Greek, meaning ox-tongue, and refers to the blue, tongue-shaped inflorescence. The term bugloss,is also used for any blue-flowered hairy plant.
It is quite startling to come across such a large colourful plant in the countryside. Carl Linnaeus, the great Swedish botanist, referred to fields of the plant as “surpassing in splendour anything that can be imagined”.
Although it is much admired here, in America it is not so popular, and where is has spread dramatically, it is called the Blue Devil. And with similar disdain, in Australia it is known in some parts as Paterson’s Curse.
Culpeper writes that the plant is a cure for snake bite and the effects of other poisonous herbs. Concoctions of the roots and seeds are said to “comfort the heart and expel sadness and melancholy”, from which we can conclude that it may have antidepressant properties.
Still, probably safer to stick to your Prozac.
Dr Richard Warren is a botanist in Barnard Castle