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Plant of the Month - Vipers Bugloss

Updated: Aug 27, 2019

Echium vulgare

The names Echium from greek ‘echis’ meaning viper and vulgare being an alternative form of vulgaris which means common.

Common names: Vipers Bugloss, Blue weed, (Paterson's Curse or Salvation Jane (Australia)

Figure 1. Vipers Bugloss "in situ", Cambridgeshire U.K..

Close to where I live is a piece of land owned by the Parish Council. that is locally known as "The Pits". Currently the area is being managed to promote a wider range of flora. One of the striking plants currently flowering is the stunning bright blue Viper’s Bugloss. This native species is a member of the Borage family (Boraginaceae) with a range that extends from Europe to Western and Central Asia. It is found on dry calcareous grasslands, heaths and wastelands, and can be seen on railway embankments and roadside verges. It was once very common in Britain but its presence has declined since the 1930’s, primarily due to changes in farming practice. As a species it is not endangered but is now only common in specific areas.

Usually biennial, (like carrot plants flowering in the second year) Vipers Bugloss can occasionally behave as an annual (grows and flowers in one year) and it's vibrant blue flowers can be seen from May - September.

Figure 2. Close up showing the seeds (circled). Note also the dark spots on the stems and the glabourous (hairy) nature of the leaves and stem.

Each individual flower is between 15 and 20mm long starting as pink in colour when it first emerges and then changing to blue when mature. The stamens are also pink/red and with the pollen on the anthers being blue, they are really stunning flowers (Figure 4). Flowers are held in a dense branched spike which makes them very visible. After pollination, four dark brown seeds can be found in the axils between the flower and the stem as shown in figure 2. The whole plant is hairy and the stem has dark dots on it, which are said to be reminiscent of the spotted viper. Although it can 30 - 80cm in height the plants in The Pits are smaller as it is usually very dry.

Vipers Bugloss is a poisonous plant containing pyrrolizidine alkaloids similar to that found in ragwort (Senecio jacobaea) . Consumption over a long period can cause irreparable liver damage. There are reports of animal poisoning but not of humans.

In Australia, it is called Patterson’s Curse as it was said to have been introduced to the garden of a Mrs Patterson. It subsequently escaped and thrived and as it can cause harm to grazing stock, has been declared a noxious weed. The hairs can also cause skin irritation so care should be taken when handled.

It is a food plant for a range of insects and is a secondary caterpillar host for the Painted Lady butterfly, Vanessa cardui although I couldn’t find evidence of any caterpillars or pupal cases despite there being quite a few of these butterflies on the wing.

Figure 3. My colour chart photographed in situ with Vipers Bugloss - August 2019.

To be able to paint the plant I took my own colour chart to the site to photograph the plant and the chart together (Figure 3). The chart is made using combinations of the six main colours I usually use as the basis of my palette. Having this chart enables me to do a much more accurate colour match in situ which is vital for rare species. Each square has a grid reference which I record for later use. On the day the photograph was taken it was very windy so it was a challenge to capture a good image. I then removed tiny plant pieces to do a more thorough match and mixing in my studio ready for painting.

Figure 4. Specific colour chart for the specimen with detailed notes. Note the blue pollen (red arrow) from the anthers.

The main colour for the flowers is Winsor and Newton (W&N) French Ultramarine with Winsor Violet (W&N). The initial flower colour and stamens matched the Daniel Smith (DS) Quinacridone Coral , which is a beautiful pigment to paint with. For a green on this occasion I went for Sap Green (DS) modified with some Winsor lemon (W&N).

For the areas of shadow on the foliage I will add French Ultramarine (W&N) and Winsor Violet (W&N). The seeds are a dark brown and for this I will use Sepia (W&N) with Winsor Violet (W&N).

Look out for another native plant from ‘The Pits’ as I am aiming to put together a composite picture of the flora over the next twelve months.

Elaine Allison - August, 2019

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