Wild Flowers of Pittsburgh

Viper’s Bugloss (Echium vulgare)

Easily recognized by its columns of vivid blue flowers; seen most often beside railroads or along roadsides. This is certainly one of our most decorative weeds. These plants were blooming in mid-June at the edge of a parking lot in New Stanton.

Once in a while a plant will appear with pink flowers, usually fading to blue after they have been open for a while; a picture of one such is here.

Gray describes the genus and the species:

ÈCHIUM [Tourn.] L. VIPER’S BUGLOSS. Corolla with a cylindraceous or funnel-form tube; lobes rounded, spreading. Stamens mostly exserted, unequal. Style thread-form. Nutlets roughened or wrinkled, fixed by a flat base. (A plant name used by Dioscorides from echisa viper.)

E. VULGARE L. (BLUE-WEED, BLUE DEVIL.) Rough-bristly biennial; stem erect, 3-9 dm. high; stem-leaves linear-lanceolate, sessile; flowers showy, in short lateral clusters, disposed in a long and narrow thyrse or in an open panicle; buds pink; corolla brilliant blue (rarely pale or roseate). Roadsides and meadows, locally abundant. June-Sept. (Nat. from Eu.)

Mrs. Dana, in How to Know the Wild Flowers, has this to say about our subject:

When the blueweed first came to us from across the sea it secured a foothold in Virginia. Since then it has gradually worked its way northward, lining the Hudson’s shores, overrunning many of the dry fields in its vicinity, and making itself at home in parts of New England. We should be obliged to rank it among the “pestiferous” weeds were it not that, as a rule, it only seeks to monopolize land which is not good for very much else. The pinkish buds and bright blue blossoms, with their red protruding stamens, make a valuable addition, from the aesthetic point of view, to the bunch of midsummer field-flowers in which hitherto the various shades of red and yellow have predominated.

In Wild Flowers Worth Knowing, Neltje Blanchan adds some of the traditional lore of the plant:

Years ago, when simple folk believed God had marked plants with some sign to indicate the special use for which each was intended, they regarded the spotted stem of the bugloss, and its seeds shaped like a serpent’s head, as certain indications that the herb would cure snake bites. Indeed, the genus takes its name from Echis, the Greek viper.

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