When summer is in full swing, it is to the meadows and fields that we must head to feast our eyes on the riotous colors of the season. Wildflowers fill the open spaces where sunlight reaches the ground. In many places within the Adirondack Park, however, the only open spaces are the shoulders of the roads. Fortunately, many plants colonize these precarious environs, their tastes turned to harsh soils and microclimates. Among summer’s roadside colonizers we find viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare), a plant that brings a bit of the sky to earth.
Viper’s bugloss (aka: blueweed, snake flower and blue devil) is one of the more attractive flowers gracing our barren roadsides. Growing upwards of a meter in height, its stem is topped with a spire dotted with many blue-pink blossoms, which open sequentially throughout the season. When the flowers first open, they are a bright rosy pink; as they age, they turn a beautiful sky blue. The long stamens, which protrude beyond the flower’s petals, remain a deep pink, giving the blossom an eye-catching “sky-blue-pink” coloration.
Most wildflowers we find blooming along our roadways are non-natives, plants that either came over with early colonists as food or medicine and later escaped from their gardens, or plants that snuck in on the shoes, clothing and other belongings of settlers from across the sea. Viper’s bugloss (pronounced BEW-gloss, by the way) falls into the former category. Back in the “old country,” which in this case is most of Europe and much of Asia, it was revered as a cure for many poisons and snake bites. The logic behind this attribution harkens back to the Doctrine of Signatures, a philosophy that declared that if a plant had a part that resembled a part of the human body, then it must be a cure for ailments of said part. With the plant in question, the seeds apparently look like snake heads, and therefore the leap of logic was that it could be used to treat snake bites.
I have a better theory. If one takes a close look at this plant, one sees that it is covered with many small hairs. These hairs are not soft and cuddly; instead, they are sharp and prickly. If grabbed with a bare hand, the plant can “bite” back, impaling its antagonist with its irritating hairs. It is possible this could feel like one has been bitten, and what would be lurking around plants in dry, barren places but venomous vipers! If one’s going to jump to conclusions, at least this one makes (some) sense.
Modern day practitioners of herbal medicines make an infusion from the leaves of viper’s bugloss to treat inflammation and melancholy, as well as to reduce fevers and relieve coughs. However, the plant is known to contain pyrrolizidine alkaloids, chemicals that if consumed in enough quantity can cause liver failure. In fact, the ASPCA lists viper’s bugloss as a serious toxin for horses, which will eat it if nothing else is around (so much for the deterrent quality of the prickly hairs).
Nevertheless, the plant has some redeeming qualities. In Europe Echium is harvested as an oilseed crop (technically, it is E. platagineum, not E. vulgare, that is harvested for this oil, but let’s not quibble). Apparently the oil is full of omega fatty acids, specifically gamma linoliec acid (GLA) and stearidonic acid (SdA). These two fatty acids are essential to the human body, and yet the body does not produce them; they must be acquired from outside sources.
Bees and butterflies frequent the plants, seeking the nectar within each semi-tubular bloom. I’ve watched many a bee happily bumbling along from blossom to blossom, oblivious to my curious eyes. Not only does the plant appeal to bees, but a quick scan online turned up a couple sources that sell viper’s bugloss honey, claiming it is tasty with a chewy consistency.
A member of the borage family, viper’s bugloss shares many of the same qualities of borage, including the light blue flowers, and the rapidity in which it spreads (the plants readily reseed themselves). The flowers of both are also edible: it is not uncommon for them to be crystallized and tossed in salads.
For the hobbyist who likes to try her hand at natural dying, the root is known for producing a red dye for fabrics.
Still, we must remember that this plant is not native, and thanks to its reseeding capabilities, it can spread with relative ease. As such, viper’s bugloss is considered a noxious weed in many states and eradication programs are in place to eliminate the plant where it has taken hold. I’ve checked various invasive plant lists for New York, and viper’s bugloss is not listed on any of them. So, enjoy the plant when you see it along the roadside. Take some photographs, dig up a root or two and tie-dye a t-shirt, toss some flowers in your salad, but don’t plant it in your gardens at home. Leave it along the roadside, where it can wave at passersby with its cheerful blossoms.
For some truly stunning photographs of this roadside plant, visit: http://www.microscopy-uk.org.uk/mag/indexmag.html?http://www.microscopy-uk.org.uk/mag/artfeb04/bjbugloss.html