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The loveliest roadside weed. June 27, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening.
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Our friend Ben knows that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But one of the great joys of this time of year for me is that it’s once again time for viper’s bugloss to bloom on the roadsides here in scenic Pennsylvania. To me, no weed—not even my beloved Queen Anne’s lace and oxeye daisy—displays such beauty.

Native to Europe, viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare) was accidentally introduced to North America in the 1600s, and now grows along roads and in other dry, sunny, gravelly places throughout the U.S. and Canada. It’s a biennial, sending up multiple thick wands of astonishingly blue hooded flowers in its second year. It won’t surprise herb-growers to learn that viper’s bugloss is in the borage family—borage flowers are also that incredible shade of blue. But viper’s bugloss grows them in much greater profusion on their clustering foot-tall wands. Watching the show as the car goes by, our friend Ben gets the same thrill many gardeners get from seeing delphiniums. In fact, they make delphiniums look positively vulgar by comparison.

So how did such a beautiful plant come by the unlovely name of viper’s bugloss, or, even worse, devil’s weed? A quick chat with my good friend Google unearthed some “dirt” (sorry, I couldn’t resist) on my favorite weed. “Bugloss” turns out to have nothing to do with bugs; it’s derived from the Greek for “ox tongue,” which the plant’s slender, hairy leaves apparently reminded someone of. (That person must have eaten a few leaves before drawing such a far-fetched conclusion, but we’ll get back to that.) The “viper’s” part, one site maintains, comes from the seeds, which are shaped like snake’s heads (it claims); another site says that folklore has it that the plant could cure snakebite. Both derivations could be true, or the snakebite-cure part could be a legacy of the Doctrine of Signatures, which maintained that God had revealed the uses of plants by shaping them to resemble the part they were supposed to heal. (Thus, the white-mottled leaves of pulmonaria, aka lungwort, were supposed to resemble, and heal, diseased lungs.)

What about the name “devil’s weed”? Nothing about the poor plant resembles the devil! However, if you grab one of the stems, it apparently hurts like the devil. The most fun viper’s bugloss site I found was at http://www.microscopy-uk.org.uk/. Look for “A Close-Up View of the Strange Wildflower ‘Viper’s Bugloss’.” The author details his up-close-and-personal encounter with the excruciating spines of the plant—lurking beneath innocuous soft hairs on the stem—and backs up his encounter with microscope-enhanced views of the stems, which show vicious-looking spines emerging from what appear to be (but mercifully aren’t) drops of fresh blood on the stems. Yikes!!!!

There could be another reason viper’s bugloss is called devil’s weed, however. One site noted that animals tended to leave the plant alone because it contained a strong alkaloid. Alkaloids are hallucinogenic as well as quite poisonous; anyone who was brave or desperate enough to eat the leaves would probably think (assuming he survived) that he had seen the devil, been cured of snakebite, ended up touring Mars in the company of Elvis and Galileo, or mercy alone knows what. Our friend Ben will leave it at this: If you value your liver, your sanity, and/or your continued existence, do not try this at home. Talk about a bad trip!

Instead, confine your tripping to seeing if you can recognize this beautiful plant on the exposed, sunny banks as you’re driving along. It might become your favorite roadside weed as well!   

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1. Frances - June 27, 2008

Hi Ellen, thanks for showing us that plant. I don’t remember it from when we lived in PA, but I was young and toting four young ones everywhere. Your story was great and I searched for the photos of it. Beautiful.

Thanks, Frances! Sadly, none of the photos I found even approached the beauty of the wandlike clusters I see here, though there were some good close-ups of the individual flowers. What a shame! It’s really a stunning plant. One seeded in on the roadside here at Hawk’s Haven, and I got hugely excited, thinking maybe I’d get a colony going here, but it disappeared—doubtless another victim of the mower. I don’t recall ever seeing one in Tennessee, but maybe they’re around and I just missed them.


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