Viper’s Bugloss is without doubt one of the most visually arresting plants that grow wild on the Downs. It’s tall stems of vibrant blue blooms seem almost out of place amongst the mostly small and inconspicuous flowers of this chalk grassland habitat.
Still it is an incredible pleasure to happen upon them, growing in abundance, on a fine summers day. As this area of Downland is protected, I grow Viper’s Bugloss in my garden rather than harvesting from the wild but in some areas, where it is an introduced and somewhat invasive species, I’d have no qualms about wildcrafting it.
Viper’s Bugloss, Echium vulgare, is a biennial or short lived perennial native to Europe and parts of Asia. It has rough, hairy, lanceolate leaves and can grow up to nearly a meter in height. The flowers start off pinkish in the bud but open to reveal beautiful blue flowers with pink stamens. According to Culpepper, “After the flowers are fallen, the seeds growing to be ripe, are blackish, cornered and pointed somewhat like the head of a viper.” This is perhaps where it got its common name from.
It is beloved by all kinds of wildlife, especially bumble bees, honeybees, painted lady butterflies and these striking burnet moths. In fact, The Bumblebee Conservation Trust referred to it as the very best plant for bumblebees, making it a great addition to any wildlife friendly garden.
A member of the Boraginaceae family which also contains Borage and Comfrey, it has a long history of medicinal use though its fallen out of fashion in recent years. This is partly due to the presence of the infamous pyrrolizidine alkaloids that are found in various members of this family and have caused much controversy around the use of Comfrey. My purpose here is not to discuss the arguments for and against so I suggest you inform yourself well and decide whether or not you feel happy using this herb. Personally I feel comfortable using it internally to treat acute conditions such as those described below, especially as a few drops on the tongue is the usual dose and it is only taken short term. It may be used externally on unbroken skin without the need for caution. I’d avoid internal use if you are pregnant or have compromised liver function.
Medicinally it helps provoke a sweat and has diuretic properties too, thus helping the body expel toxins. Like comfrey it contains allantoin which makes it useful for healing injuries by promoting growth of new cells. It has also been used as a poultice for healing boils. Like borage it was said to dispel melancholy and being demulcent it was used particularly in chest complaints with dry coughs. Hilda Leyel considered it a cordial herb similar to borage and writes that it is “very useful in feverish colds and chest complaints; and cooling and cheering and decorative in wine cups and summer drinks.”
Above all however Viper’s Bugloss, as its name suggests, has been considered one of the main local remedies for snake bites. I learnt recently from Surrey based herbalist and member of the Herbarium, Stephen Church, that the tincture can be used both externally and internally for any number of insect bites as well. He has used it topically with remarkable success for treating bee stings and a friend of mine who is a beekeeper keeps it on hand to stop the reactions she has been known to have to stings. Stephen also tells a tale of his niece who was badly bitten by the dreaded sandflies whilst on Fraser Island in Australia. Cases like hers can require several rounds of anti-biotics to treat and patients are often left with scarring. Luckily he had equipped her with a bottle of Vipers Bugloss tincture before she left the UK and after using it liberally, the Doctor said he’d never seen bites heal so well.
Though I have not found much evidence beyond the anecdotal, it has been enough to convince me to keep a small bottle of Echium tincture in my first aid cabinet to dab on any insect bites I may happen to incur over the summer months. Earlier this year my parents’ dog was bitten by an adder and needed some very strong anti-venom and a stay at the vets in order to ensure his survival. Whilst I would, of course recommend he be taken to the vet as soon as possible, I’ll also be giving my parents a small bottle of tincture of Vipers Bugloss with instructions to use topically and internally, just in case he were ever to stick his eager nose in the path of a grumpy snake again!
For me Vipers Bugloss is a winner all round. It’s beautiful, a very handy first aid plant and perfect for attracting wildlife. I hope my garden will never be without it.