by Matt Gibson
Viper’s bugloss is an odd-looking flower that’s important to grow in your flower garden if you care about bees. Its thick stem is covered in black spots and spiky hairs. Vibrant blue trumpet-shaped flowers are highlighted by red tongue-like filaments. The blossoms produce an exceptionally bright blue pollen, and tons of it.
The pollen and nectar that this flower produces, in fact, make it one of the most important plants in the world for bees. The immense amount of pollen and nectar that viper’s bugloss produces from May to September is vital for bees that need to build up their winter storage. All of the different varieties of echium are bee sanctuaries, so it’s no wonder that adding a few viper’s bugloss plants to your flower garden will bring in the bees and help your garden’s plumage stay pollinated and plentiful year round.
Viper’s bugloss is a wildflower. It appears naturally in dunes, dry grasslands, and dry banks, or anywhere with chalk-like soil. The plant’s snake-like appearance led healers to believe that it would be a useful treatment for snake bites, though the spiky hairs on the stem can sting to the touch and the powerful pollen can irritate the skin.
Just touching the leaves can cause severe dermatitis, so it’s best to use garden gloves and wear long sleeves when handling bugloss, as you don’t want to find out how the viper’s bugloss got its name. (Hint: it can bite you.) Other names for this wildflower include snake flower and blue devil. The name bugloss refers to a cow or ox tongue, the latter of which bears a striking resemblance to bugloss leaves.
As far as symbolism is concerned, viper’s bugloss stands for falsehood. So don’t go giving this wildflower as a gift for a significant other, unless it’s April Fool’s Day and you are playing a cruel joke. No, seriously, don’t give this flower in an arrangement to a significant other, or anyone else, for that matter. It will irritate their skin to the touch. Don’t be that guy.
Viper’s bugloss has a role in ancient history as well. According to Homer, Helen of Troy gave viper’s bugloss to her guests at a dinner party, possibly to instigate something a bit wilder than dinner. At the time, viper’s bugloss was used primarily as an aphrodisiac.
Varieties of Viper’s Bugloss Flowers
Viper’s bugloss is a species all its own, but it belongs to a family of nectar- and pollen-producing giants that the bee population cannot live without. There are over 60 different flowering plants belonging to the echium family. Echium vulgare, or viper’s bugloss, also called blue weed, is one of the more popular varieties of echium in flower gardens. Though somewhat of a rarity for years, echium vulgare grew in popularity due to environmental concerns and discussion about the dwindling population of North American bees and the impact that has on our environment. Though the flower has been growing wild in southern Europe for centuries, you can now find viper’s bugloss in gardens across North America and beyond.
Growing Conditions for Viper’s Bugloss
Growing viper’s bugloss is as simple as it gets. All these hardy annuals need is full sun exposure, dry, well-drained soil, and occasional deadheading. Sound too good to be true? Well, there is a downside. Viper’s bugloss can be very invasive. In fact, you’re not even allowed to grow it in some areas, such as in Washington state, where it is deemed a noxious weed. However, the best thing you need to do to keep your bugloss from taking over the garden is to be vigilant about bloom removal. As soon as the flowers start to wilt, pluck them off and toss them in the trash, or you’ll soon have more viper’s bugloss than you know what to do with.
How To Plant Viper’s Bugloss
Planting viper’s bugloss is just as easy as growing it. Just wait until all danger of frost has passed in the spring, and plant viper’s bugloss seeds directly into soil. Just sprinkle them on the ground, and cover with a very light, thin layer of fine soil, chalk, or sand, and you should be seeing blooms within a few short months. The type of soil doesn’t even matter that much, as viper’s bugloss will basically grow in anything. The plant prefers a chalky soil, but it will make do with what it’s given. Drop a few seeds in the dirt every few weeks, and enjoy the blossoms while providing much-needed nutrition in the form of pollen and nectar to your local bee population all summer long. You can also plant viper’s bugloss seeds in the fall for springtime blooms.
Care for Viper’s Bugloss
In cases of extreme drought, occasional watering is needed for viper’s bugloss. Usually, even in somewhat dry periods, rainwater will suffice, but during long droughts, you may need to provide a little bit of water to keep your vipers biting. There’s no need for fertilizer or any kind of special care. Deadheading is a must to keep it from taking over, but that’s all you need to do for this plant. If only everything in your garden could be that simple.
Garden Pests and Diseases of Viper’s Bugloss
Viper’s bugloss is resistant to most diseases and pests. There are no reports of disease-related issues concerning viper’s bugloss. However, bees really love this flower. Taking care of bees is a good thing, and bees are a welcome addition to any garden. But be warned, bees really, really like this one. If you plant a lot of bugloss or let its self-propagation get out of hand, you could end up with more bees than you bargained for.
The only pest issue you might encounter when growing viper’s bugloss is slugs. Use an all-natural slug repellant, or simply pick these pests off by hand when they appear. They usually only show up if there have been heavy rains or you have a problem with soil drainage.
Health Benefits of Viper’s Bugloss
While early healers, who thought that everything that looked like something else was probably meant to cure that thing, incorrectly assumed that viper’s bugloss would cure snake bites because the plant looked somewhat like a snake, viper’s bugloss actually does have a wide range of health benefits and is still used today in alternative medicine. Using the flowering stems and leaves of bugloss, one can make an infusion that can be used to treat lung disorders, coughing, and skin irritation. The viper’s bugloss infusion can also be used to promote sweating and as a natural diuretic. A poultice can be made from the stems and leaves to treat skin eruptions, wounds, and boils.
What Viper’s Bugloss Flowers Means To Bees
According to researchers, viper’s bugloss can help bees produce 300 to 1,000 pounds of honey per acre. Unlike many flowers, bugloss nectar is available to bees at all hours of the day. Mornings, afternoons, evenings, and late nights, viper’s bugloss has nectar on tap 24/7. This is because the nectaries are well protected by the plant itself. Housed deep within the corolla, the petals function as a protective shield, guarding the precious nectar from the drying powers of the sun and the dilution of the rain. This amounts to a neverending supply of sweet nectar that bees covet for their winter stores.
Viper’s bugloss is also a neverending all-natural pollen factory, producing 500-2,000 pounds of pollen per acre. The vibrant dark-blue pollen attracts honey bees, hummingbirds, butterflies, and more. In Canada alone, viper’s bugloss attracts over 50 different species of pollinators. The painted lady butterfly is a huge fan of the viper bugloss flowers.
Why Is Viper’s Bugloss Outlawed in Some Areas?
According to a 2011 study, viper’s bugloss was found to contain pyrrolizidine alkaloids that are harmful to the livers of both livestock and humans. The hairs that grow on the leaves and stems can cause skin irritation and even severe dermatitis. Because the plant spreads so rapidly if it’s not maintained, and because it is resistant to drought, it is considered invasive in many regions, especially in the United States. It is considered a noxious weed in Washington, Australia, New Zealand, and in the Canadian regions of Nova Scotia, Alberta, Quebec, and parts of British Columbia.
Video About Viper’s Bugloss
Watch this video for images on viper’s bugloss