Echium vulgare – Viper’s Bugloss

French name: Viperine. Biennial or perennial, found all over France, and indeed most of Europe.

What a great English name! It dates all the way back to the Greek naturalist Dioscorides (40-90 CE) and his book De materia medica, which remained continuously in circulation and use till about 1600 – it wasn’t one of those books like earlier Greek natural philosophy which went out of sight until translated in twelfth-century Moorish Spain.

This plant is thought to be the one Dioscorides called ekhion and recommended for both prevention and cure of snakebite. This seems to have arisen from the shape of the seeds, which resemble snakes’ heads.

Sixteenth-century botanists thought it similar to bugloss (Lycopsis/Anchusa arvensis), and indeed both belong to the same family: Boraginaceae. Bugloss comes from the Greek bouglossos, meaning ox-tongued – most plants in this family have thick, rough, tongue-shaped leaves. A particular feature of this plant and many others in the same family is that the flowers start out pink and change to bright blue – you can see both colours in the picture. It must be a change in pH in the petal, which responds like litmus paper – if you put a blue flower in vinegar it changes back to pink (I’ve just tried).

Coming up soon: Ray Florets – who’s he and what’s he got to do with New Orleans?

And on 15th May a Presidential transfer special with two trips to Hades and one to Athens – none to Holland, strangely.

Now to another herb: if you’re a fan of the jazz of 30’s Harlem, you may know that ‘viper’ was a slang term for a marijuana-smoker, and featured in several cheeky drug-related songs by Cab Calloway, Fats Waller and Stuff Smith, among others.  I’m featuring the violinist Stuff Smith and his You’re a Viper (1938).  ‘Mighty Mezz’ in the song is a reference to the strong Mexican dope sold by the musician Mezz Mezzrow. It was the innocent days before heroin arrived and pretty well every musician smoked a lot of reefers.  Of course, it’s all different now.

Dreamed about a reefer five feet long. Mighty Mezz, but not too strong. You’ll get high, but not for long. Cuz’ you’se a viper.

I’m the king of everything. I’ve got to be high to have that swing. Light a tea and let it be. You’se a viper.

When your throat get dry you know you’re high. Everything is dandy.

Truck on down to the candy store. Bust your konk on a peppermint candy.

Then you know your body’s spent. You don’t care if you don’t pay rent. Sky is high, you high. If you’se a viper.

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3 Comments

Filed under Echium

3 responses to “Echium vulgare – Viper’s Bugloss

  1. I like the way you’ve caught the bee. And I’m intrigued as to how Dioscorides thought that this plant could prevent snake bites…I can imagine how he might have thought it would cure them, but not prevent.

  2. Ceridwen

    Of course The Viper Room! “In 1993 Johnny Depp’s career was taking off and he would use his celebrity to turn ‘The Viper Room’ into the hippest and trendiest nightclub on the Sunset Strip. From the beginning, as in its previous incarnations, The Viper Room was a place where drug dealers flourished. To this day the Viper Room’s website features as its logo a female snake seated atop a pair of dice, in a posture that seemingly allures her prey to be injected with her poison. On Halloween night, 1993 Johnny Depp’s friend River Phoenix took such a ‘roll of the dice’ and died after injecting drugs into his veins inside the Viper Room. Depp was among the Viper Room employees and patrons that watched as Phoenix lay dying on the sidewalk outside the club. He was 23 years old.”
    I remember well my first encounter with this this plant as a child. We had discovered a huge pit in Berkshire where sand and gravel had been extracted and it was excitingly just like a beach, without any sea of course, but with cliffs and drifts of pure yellow sand and all the associated vegetation including masses of these curious plants. The name caught my imagination of course and the dual-coloured flowers — like litmus paper, of course.How cunning of you to test that out!
    I am enjoying your blog, thank you so much.

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