viper's bugloss defined in 1912 yearviper's bugloss - VIPER'S BUGLOSS (Echium vulgare);
viper's bugloss - "A most gallant herb of the Sun." From sunbaked patches of bare earth blue masses of Viper's Bugloss were throwing back colour for colour to the bright August sky. A few weeks ago the field had been a vast extent of waving greens and pinks, from which wafted rushes of scent with every breeze that stirred it; now the crop was cut and only stray plants, which had here and there escaped the mowers, spoke of the clover which had so lately reigned supreme. But the Viper's Bugloss had entered into possession of the bareness and given a new beauty, and as the sun blazed down upon it the old herbalist's happy epithet flashed into memory down two and a half centuries. It is indeed "a most gallant herb of the Sun" - in its upright, stately bearing; in its gay colouring of blues and pinks and purples, and above all in the armour with which it equips itself.
At the very outset this armour makes itself realised (does it not belong to the family of the Boragineæ, whose very name implies the armoured?), for the whole plant - the strong, sturdy stem, the great spreading tuft of root-leaves lying flat upon the ground, the finer, slighter leaves that rise in a spiral up the stem, even the very flowers themselves - is clothed with a coating of hairs so sharp and stiffened as to be almost prickly and certainly disagreeable to handle. On the stems they can be seen as white bristles each rising from a single dark gland; under a lens these glands show very distinctly as glistening knobs. On the leaves the hairs are finer and softer, and not so glandular, but among the flowers they are sharp enough again to prick smartly one's lips if placed to them.
The flowering spikes are not only brilliant, they have a striking individuality, and a distinction largely due to a curious curl that they form as the days go by. In their early days, such as are depicted in our plate, they are almost straight, and rose-red buds appear at the tip. As they open these lose their rosiness and streak with purple; then, as the flower is fully revealed, the petals stand as a bright blue tube, large and yawning.
Yet another peculiarity marks the flowers of the Viper's Bugloss. They all arise on the upper side of the bowing stem, and there they stand crowded together side by side, a small green-pointed leaf standing erect by each as if on guard. Thus this "scorpiod cyme," as the botanists call this form of curving flower-spike, from its resemblance to the curly tail of the scorpion, has deep pink buds just showing at the tip; purplish, pink-streaked opening flowers above them; then one, or possibly two, blue, fully opened flowers; behind these, fading flowers; and back of all, down near the stem, are a number of rough green calices persisting long after the delicate petals have vanished, and protecting the four little nutlets they enclose. Owing to the curling of the stem each flower as it comes to the zenith of its day is pushed forward, and presented most prominently to the notice of any visiting insects that may be around.
Now, let us look for a moment at one of the flowers on its "day." Five rough sepals with stout ribs build up the calyx and give support to the petals; the petals, five altogether, are joined to form an irregular tube, with two lobes projecting above, one lobe on either side, and one rather receding below. Right beyond the edge four stamens thrust themselves; they have crimson filaments and the tiniest of dark heads; one stamen, much shorter than the rest, hides within the tube; they are all fastened alike to the corolla tube just where it narrows, and they lie upon the lower side. Their anthers are open on their upper surface, and the pollen dust lies exposed upon them. The four stamens form a capital landing stage for bees - a necessary provision since the lower part of the tube recedes. The little fifth stamen is a cunning dodge of the flower to catch and dust smaller insects, which are apt to fly straight into the petal cavern without first alighting.
Soon, however, another column pushes out and grows beyond them. This is the column from the ovary at the remote end of the tube, and it is thickly clothed with tiny hairs, and has its free end divided into two minute branches. All insects approaching the flower, whether flying straight in or alighting, are bound to touch and dust it if they are carrying pollen. Since the stamens are first in the field they manage to get their pollen carried off before their own flower's ovary column appears, and since this ultimatety projects beyond them, it, in its turn, gets dusted with other pollen before the visiting insect alights among its own flower's stamens. Hence there is always cross-fertilisation.
As for insect visitors, the Viper's Bugloss attracts a whole crowd of them; one observer patiently counted no fewer than a hundred different sorts. Bees are particular favourites, while the Humming Bird Hawk Moth in favoured situations often pauses above it and drinks its fill. Some observers say that bees and butterflies are apt to get their delicate wings torn by the rough hairs on this plant. It is also said that there are two different kinds of bees whose entire food consists of its pollen.
The fruit eventually forms as four dry, blackish nutlets, and some have seen in their shape the suggestion of a snake's head and hence, they assert, the plant gets its name of Viper's Bugloss, also its botanical name of Echium, from the Greek (echis, a viper). But Culpepper, who claimed to found all his assertions upon " Dr. Experience," tells us that it is "an especial remedy against the biting of the viper, and all other venomous beasts or serpents, as also against poison, or poisonous herbs." The ancient Greek physician Dioscorides went farther than this; he asserted that if a person took a dose before the viper bit him he would suffer no ill effects from the bite. Others, therefore, rest the name upon this remedial value. Others, again, profess to find the reason in the rough, speckled stem, whose surface is like a serpent's skin.
The curious name of Bugloss is probably derived from two Greek words, bous, meaning an ox, and glossa, a tongue, and has reference to the rough, pointed leaves which are reminiscent of an ox's tongue.
The Viper's Bugloss is sometimes claimed as our handsomest native plant - a large claim - but undoubtedly, as Thomas Green wrote one hundred years ago, "It is a showy plant; and such is the absurdity of fashion that if it were not common, it would assuredly obtain admittance into our gardens." It is usually about a foot or two high, but may even rise to a height of three feet where conditions are propitious. It loves dry fields and waste places, but is abundant only in the south of England.
A few years after Culpepper was writing so warmly of it, the Viper's Bugloss shared in the fashion of the day and went colonising to the United States. It was in 1683 that it first appeared an uninvited guest of the new land. No one knew how it had travelled there, but the few stowaways quickly became a mighty over-riding host that had to be reckoned and fought with. A century and a half afterwards, Dr. Asa Gray, the naturalist, reported that it had taken complete possession, even of cultivated fields, of over a hundred miles in a certain valley in Virginia. No wonder that the farmers of the New World grumble and say that their most pernicious and persistent weeds are all foreigners.
Other names for this plant are Common Echium, Cat's Tails, Viper's Herb, and Viper's Grass. In America it is also known as Blueweed, Snakeflower, and Blue Thistle.
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