We don’t have any vipers. We certainly haven’t lost any bugs. So I wonder who named the plant. We just call it blue weed or, more accurately, blue devil. It is blue. It bedevils gardens, yards, farm fields and roadsides for those attempting to keep it out. If you try to grab it, you’ll soon yelp from the stout spines that defend it from you and animals that might want to eat it.. Some people get a rash just touching it. Or get the spines irritatingly under their skin for foolishly forgetting their gloves.
Toughness is it’s trademark, the first requirement for plants that want to make it in our currently drought stricken, gravelly dirt. When the lawn has shriveled into a brown fire hazard, up comes viper’s bugloss, with rough, hairy leaves and aggressive stems that seem to rise defiantly higher and greener each time you look around. They require the yard to be cut just to knock them back even when everything else under the blades, except the equally determined chicory, is simply a spew of dust. Viper’s bugloss loves dry limestone sweeps, waste places, roadsides, railway tracks, cliffs and baking dunes. Unlike it’s neighbour, the dandelion which slyly blooms below blade level when mowed, viper’s bugloss starts all over again with new stems reaching skyward no matter how often it is cut down, a game that lasts until the first frost heavy enough to put it sleep for the winter.
Viper’s Bugloss is not even a native. According to my plant book, some misguided adventurer brought it to North America as early as the 1690s thinking it would make a fine garden flower. It took to it’s new home with joyful enthusiasm and, not so much later, had farmers cursing as they tried to root it out of their crops. The early settlers, who ate anything they could get their hands on, declared the plant edible, which is stretching it. In early days it was thought to be effective against snake bite, hence the “viper” part of the name. The only catch was that you had administer the remedy before the snake bit you. The other part of the name, “bugloss” is from the Greeks who thought the leaves looked like the tongues of oxen. All in the eye of the beholder, I say.
On the plus side, the showy blue flowers with their red stamens do look striking when they manage to evade you in a flowerbed. They are beloved by bees, providing as they do, a reliable source of nectar in the blooming cycle which lasts from May to September. A cordial made from its leaves was said to relieve headaches, fevers and nervous complaints. The seeds, decocted in wine, were once used to “comfort the heart and drive away melancholy”. Myself, I would tend to suspect this had more to do with the amount of wine imbibed rather than the seeds.
Despite centuries of weeding viper’s bugloss remains a hardy ruffian. Admire it for something that will always grow and always fight back. Don’t think it’s going anywhere soon.