Dear Readers, my trot around East Finchley on Sundary reminded me of how much I love Viper’s Bugloss – so prickly, so blue, and such a magnet for bees! And so I wanted to resurrect this post, partly because it reminds me of the first time I noticed the plant. I was taking a walk around Milborne St Andrew to clear my head after a difficult few days looking after my parents, who were seriously ailing by this point, and I remember how, on spotting this plant, all my worries fell away, just for a few moments. It’s strange how the sight of a ‘new’ flower, or a bird doing something unusual, or an interesting insect, can completely take me out of my head and plop me back into being part of the living world. And so I wanted to share this with you again, in the hope that if you’re having a hard time, it can act as a reminder of all the extraordinary life that’s going on right outside your front door. Take a walk, if you’re able, or at least open the window and stand there, breathing, for a few minutes. Sending all of you who need it a big hug.
And of course, there is a poem. There’s much to love about this work by Stacie Cassarino (for me at least), but is it too much? And what the hell is an isopleth? Readers, it is A broad term for any line on a weather map connecting points with equal values of a particular atmospheric variable’. So now you know. Let me know what you think! I am half in love with it, but not completely.
BY STACIE CASSARINO
I wanted to see where beauty comes from
without you in the world, hauling my heart
across sixty acres of northeast meadow,
my pockets filling with flowers.
Then I remembered,
it’s you I miss in the brightness
and body of every living name:
rattlebox, yarrow, wild vetch.
You are the green wonder of June,
root and quasar, the thirst for salt.
When I finally understand that people fail
at love, what is left but cinquefoil, thistle,
the paper wings of the dragonfly
aeroplaning the soul with a sudden blue hilarity?
If I get the story right, desire is continuous,
equatorial. There is still so much
I want to know: what you believe
can never be removed from us,
what you dreamed on Walnut Street
in the unanswerable dark of your childhood,
learning pleasure on your own.
Tell me our story: are we impetuous,
are we kind to each other, do we surrender
to what the mind cannot think past?
Where is the evidence I will learn
to be good at loving?
The black dog orbits the horseshoe pond
for treefrogs in their plangent emergencies.
There are violet hills,
there is the covenant of duskbirds.
The moon comes over the mountain
like a big peach, and I want to tell you
what I couldn’t say the night we rushed
North, how I love the seriousness of your fingers
and the way you go into yourself,
calling my half-name like a secret.
I stand between taproot and treespire.
Here is the compass rose
to help me live through this.
Here are twelve ways of knowing
what blooms even in the blindness
of such longing. Yellow oxeye,
viper’s bugloss with its set of pink arms
pleading do not forget me.
We hunger for eloquence.
We measure the isopleths.
I am visiting my life with reckless plenitude.
The air is fragrant with tiny strawberries.
Fireflies turn on their electric wills:
an effulgence. Let me come back
whole, let me remember how to touch you
before it is too late.
Dear Readers, nothing delights me more than finding a plant that my guide describes as ‘common’ but which I have never seen before, and so it is with Viper’s Bugloss. What a fantastic plant it is, with its furry flowers and purple stamen and hairy stems. There is something rather Harry Potter-ish about it, and it looks far too exotic to be a UK native, even though it is.
I found this one growing from a crevice in a wall above the stream in Milborne St Andrew, and it does seem to have a liking for chalky soils such as those in parts of Dorset. It is a member of the Borage family, and is much loved by pollinators. The name ‘bugloss’ comes from the Greek for ‘ox-tongued’ and refers to the rough texture of the plant. The ‘viper’ bit comes from the way the stamen resemble a snake’s tongue, from the look of the seed head, and from the belief that the plant could cure snakebite (probably another manifestation of the ‘Doctrine of Signatures’, whereby it was believed that God had designed the appearance of a plant to indicate what it could be used for).
Viper’s Bugloss is native to Europe and temperate Asia, and has been introduced to North America, where it is sometimes known as ‘blueweed’ and has become invasive in some parts of the continent.The plant contains alkaloids, which are poisonous, although there are no known cases of humans suffering from eating it. Because of its long taproot it can be difficult to remove from pasture, and in 2006 a paper suggested that bulls in Spain died as a result of munching on viper’s bugloss and common ragwort. However, while ragwort gets a very bad press, viper’s bugloss is generally tolerated. I sometimes wonder how and why we get these bees in our bonnets about particular plants whilst ignoring others that, it could be argued, are equally ‘dangerous’. Could the popular press have something to do with it, I ask myself (sarcastically)?
In Australia, a closely related plant (purple viper’s bugloss or Echium plantagineum) is known as ‘Patterson’s Curse’, because it is said to have escaped from the garden of a Mrs. Patterson. After a bushfire in Canberra destroyed all the other pasture, 40 horses are said to have eaten the bugloss and suffered liver failure, resulting in them having to be destroyed.Viper’s bugloss is such a stunner (in my eyes anyhow) that a number of cultivars have been developed, such as ‘Blue Bedder’ which can be bought from the Royal Horticultural Society shop should you be so inclined. As usual, I rather prefer the species plant, and I suspect that it might be more attractive to pollinators in its original state as well. Why would you want to breed out those bright red stamens? I think we should be told…
Incidentally, you can see here how the buds start off pink and turn blue when the plant is ready to be pollinated, like so many members of the borage family.
In addition to treating snake bite, the plant is said to be useful for ameliorating fevers, headaches and inflammation, with the best parts of the plant being the leaves that grow close to the ground, directly from the root.
A herbalist named Parkinson noted that
‘the water distilled in glasses or the roote itself taken is good against the passions and tremblings of the heart as also against swoonings, sadness and melancholy.’
which sounds like a good thing. As with all plants, and particularly ones that are known to be poisonous, I would suggest a good degree of circumspection however. Remember those horses in Canberra.
I am off to Austria next week, and I note that in the Tyrol, people were warned against consuming viper’s bugloss because it was said to stimulate sexual desire. Presumably all that fresh mountain air and yodelling was aphrodisiac enough, not to mention the lederhosen.
Many species of bees love viper’s bugloss, including the rather splendid red-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius)
It is also a favourite foodplant of the migratory Painted Lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui). These insects come out of their chrysalises in the Atlas Mountains of North Africa before heading north and east to find foodplants for their caterpillars. Fortunately the caterpillars have wide-ranging tastes, from thistles to mallows, but they also love viper’s bugloss. In years when there are not many foodplants close to home, or if a large number of adults have hatched and survived, there may be extraordinary irruptions of the adults in the UK as they arrive en masse: I remember seeing over thirty in one small patch of community garden one morning a few years ago. All the more reason for growing lots of plants for butterflies and bees! The butterflies also have a love for viper’s bugloss as a nectar plant, so it helps both caterpillars and adults.
And as if that wasn’t reason enough to welcome viper’s bugloss to your garden if you get a chance, looky here….Perhaps the most exciting insect find of all, however, is not particularly spectacular to look at, but is a sign of how our flora and fauna are likely to change with the climate. The viper’s bugloss mason bee (Hoplitis adunca) is a brand new species in the UK and is currently found at only one site, the Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park in London. It strongly prefers species in the Echium genus to any other plants and, while it makes its tiny nest in every thing from empty snail shells to old beetle tunnels, at the park it was found nesting in an artificial ‘bee hotel’. Which just goes to show that if you provide lots of habitat in your garden, you never know what will turn up. It also points up the importance of ‘brownfield’ style sites for insects – many prefer these areas, even though they look uninviting to us, because they mimic the Mediterranean conditions of dry, poor soil and exposed, hot places to warm up that these insects are used to.
I am reminded of the amazing book ‘Wildlife of a Garden – A Thirty Year Study’ by Jennifer Owen, who was a hoverfly specialist and who discovered several species that were completely new to science in her Leicestershire back garden. This was before the current (much welcomed) advent of ‘wildlife gardening’ – she had, by her own description, a very ‘ordinary’ garden with a lawn and flower beds and somewhere to dry clothes, and yet, because she paid attention and recorded the visitors that she had, she was able to list 2673 species of plants and animals. I wonder what the counts for our gardens would be? So many creatures, especially the tiny ones, escape our notice altogether, and that’s without all the ones who whistle through when we aren’t looking. We are surrounded by wonders, and I for one only notice a tiny proportion of them.
Photo One by By D. Gordon E. Robertson – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10222992
Photo Two by By Lubiesque [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
Photo Three by By Harry Rose from South West Rocks, Australia (Echium plantagineum plant1) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Five by By spacebirdy(also known as geimfyglið (:> )=| made with Sternenlaus-spirit) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or FAL], from Wikimedia Commons
Photo Six by Thomas Roppenecker at https://www.flickr.com/photos/roppenecker/27613303396