Tuesday, 19 July 2011

A right royal colour

On hot sunny days it feels as if high summer reigns throughout the brecks. Areas of flowering grasses creep with the short buzzing calls of grasshoppers and the longer, high-pitched reels of bush-crickets. Stands of deep green bracken and a backdrop of brooding conifers create flat blocks of colour against which the yellow-greens of Dyer’s Rocket Reseda luteola and the soft purples of Vipers’ Bugloss Echium vulgare stand out as highlights.

I have always liked the bugloss, providing, as it does, a richness of colour at a time when other plants are coming to the end of their flowering season. I like the tenacious way in which it brings life from the dry, sandy Breckland soils. It is a plant that does well here, the features that made it unpopular with arable farmers now help it to eek out a living on this poor ground. Vipers’ Bugloss is a member of the borage family, with roughly hairy stems that make the plant prickly to the touch and a deep taproot that makes it difficult to uproot; no wonder the local farmers gave it the name ‘Devil’s Guts’. The plant was formerly a serious arable weed here, a reputation that it has carried with it to other countries, notably Australia and New Zealand, where it has been introduced. Although I have seen it referred to as ‘Paterson’s Curse’ by an Australian, this local name should really be applied to the closely related Purple Vipers’ Bugloss Echium plantagineum, a species introduced to Australia from the Mediterranean.

The name ‘Vipers’ Bugloss’ is something that has also attracted me to this plant. The ‘bugloss’ part of the name as its roots in the Greek ‘bous’ (an ox) and ‘glossa’ (a tongue), a reference to the shape and rough texture of the leaves. The ‘Vipers’ part of the name probably comes from the Roman physician and writer Diosconides who knew the plant (or more likely knew E. plantagineum) as ‘echis’ (viper or snake). Diosconides noted that the plant could be used as a treatment for a snake bite. This is a form of sympathetic medicine, where something that superficially resembles the cause of a problem can be used to treat it. The seeds of Vipers’ Bugloss resemble the heads of tiny snakes. In fact, the resemblance of the plant to a snake goes wider than this, as Richard Mabey so beautifully describes in Flora Britannica; ‘… sprays of flowers that spiral up the stem are half-coiled; the long red stamens protrude from the mouths of blue and purple flowers like tongues; the fruits resemble adders’ heads…’ To me, this description captures the essence of this plant and its place in my affections.

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