January 22, 2020

Anticipation Grows as Ice Diminishes

Echium vulgare

Echium vulgare - Viper's bugloss - Credit: Wikimedia Commons - Sergey M. Sazhin

• By Janine Pineo •

The shelf of ice took an eternity to melt from atop my favorite perennial flower bed.

When the rain washed the last chunk away a couple of weeks ago, I meandered around the yard’s temporary lakes region to stand awestruck over the fresh, green shoots of crocus, the emerald glow of a mat of creeping phlox, and the tentative tips of daffodils and tulips poking through the mulch.

Signs of life. Visions in green. A new beginning.

So I raked off broken branches, peeked under the evergreen boughs at the heath and heather plants, and scooped up the empty sunflower shells littering one end of the bed. All the time I was plotting.

Wouldn’t a few plants from that columbine mix go well here? Where might the delphiniums look best? Should I try a few sweet peas in the perennial beds this year or not? And just what is “Viper’s Bugloss” anyway?

That oddity from Seeds of Change in Santa Fe, N.M., may be the best find of the season. Viper’s Bugloss is, scientifically speaking, Echium vulgare, a European species found in the United States since about 1683. Part of the forget-me-not family, this annual herb is considered a wildflower throughout most of the country, although to some it is a weed.

Echium vulgare plate

Echium vulgare plate: a reproduction of a painting by the Swedish botanist C. A. M. Lindman (1856–1928), taken from his book(s) Bilder ur Nordens Flora (first edition published 1901–1905) | Wikimedia Commons

But what a weed! This bushy plant, which doesn’t mind poor soil, grows from 1 to 2 1/2 feet in height, with flower clusters that unfurl as the flowers bloom. The blossoms range from white to pastel shades of pink and purple, and it keeps blooming from June through fall.

As to that name, Viper’s Bugloss, there are a couple of explanations in the “National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers.” The viper part may be related to the shape of the nutlets, the cluster of seedlike fruit each flower bears, which resemble a snake’s head. Or it could be that the dried plant was considered a remedy for snakebites (it was used for centuries as a folk cure for fevers and inflammation).

The bugloss portion comes from the ancient Greek word for ox tongue, because its leaves resembled one. Not having seen an ox tongue recently, I really couldn’t say.

While wildflowers are nice, sometimes more elegance is required. For that, an old-fashioned columbine and a breezy delphinium variety caught my eye in the catalog from Johnny’s Selected Seeds of Albion.

Unlike the spurred flowers usually associated with columbines, the Barlow columbines have little buttons of double flowers that look like miniature dahlias.

If started from seed, columbine takes a year to bloom, but Johnny’s Barlow mix will make it well worth the wait. The flowers, which are great for cutting, come in striking colors, including creamy white, dark blue, rose pink and even black. Some have petals edged in white.

A few years ago, I was blessed with a Nora Barlow columbine that somehow grew in the pot with another columbine I’d found at a greenhouse. The Nora Barlow blossomed the second year, growing about 3 feet tall and putting up several stalks of rose and white flowers. It whetted my appetite for this variety, especially the dark blue, a shade that should go well with the Belladonna mix of delphinium also offered by Johnny’s.

I’ve had great success with this type of delphinium, a variety in which stems hold the blossoms away from the stalk, giving the plants an airy look. In June, my older plants sport loads of sky-blue flowers. Add a summer breeze, and they look like hovering butterflies.

Johnny’s mix has shades of deep blue, a lighter blue described as turquoise, and an “icy white.” Plants started in April should blossom by August and into fall, and next season they’ll bloom again in August only if they’re cut back after they flower in June.

To fill in some of the holes in the perennial bed and add some height, I may plant a few sweet peas from a mixture offered in the Burpee Heirlooms catalog. The Spencer class of sweet pea was discovered in the garden at Althorp, home of the Spencer family and better known today as the estate where the late Princess Diana spent much of her childhood and is interred.

The catalog says the delicate pink flower with the frilled petals was called Countess Spencer and was introduced in 1901 at a show in London, where “it caused a sensation and became the parent of a huge number of new sweet peas, the ones every gardener simply had to have.”

The heirloom mix includes the usual sweet pea shades and has some different ones, too: black, cream and orange, white-rose picotee, silver with blue, and scarlet.

For a shorter effect, the sweet pea cultivar Knee Hi might make a fragrant border. This mix from Johnny’s only grows about 24 inches tall, so they don’t need to be staked, which also makes them perfect for containers and window boxes. The ruffled blooms come in red, salmon, blue, rose, lilac and pink, and do well as cut flowers.

A cool counterpoint to a row of Knee Hi sweet peas flourishes in the gray foliage of Omphalodes from Vesey’s Seeds Ltd. in York, Prince Edward Island. This annual tops out at 8 inches and is covered in white flowers.

A member of the borage family, this Omphalodes variety is called Hails in Spain because the ground looks like it’s covered with hail after the petals drop.

Ice in the flower beds. I’m not sure my psyche can handle that.

First published in the Bangor Daily News in March 1998.

2012 update: Echium became one of my favorite plants. And then one year, I couldn’t get seed; it was on backorder that never came. Then it was sold out. Then it totally disappeared. I missed it and then I forgot it until I reread this column. I found it again, praise be, on the Thompson & Morgan site, which will get an order from me this year, if only to relive the glory of this lovely weed.