The Boraginaceae: Green Alkanet, Forget-me-not, Houndstongue, Viper’s-bugloss, Oysterplant, the Gromwells and Lungworts!

Myosotis scorpioides or the Water Forget-me-not

This week I would like to talk about most native genera of the Boraginaceae or Borage Family. This is family number 107 in Stace.

Most species of this family have inflorescences that have a coiling shape, at least when new.  The corolla varies in shape from rotate to bell-shaped to tubular, but it generally has five lobes. It can be green, white, yellow, orange, pink, purple, or blue. 

Most pollination is by hymenopterans, such as bees.

Most members of this family have hairy leaves. The coarse character of the hairs is due to cystoliths of silicon dioxide and calcium carbonate. These hairs can induce an adverse skin reaction, including itching and rash in some individuals, particularly among people who handle the plants regularly, such as gardeners.

In some species, anthocyanins cause the flowers to change color from red to blue with age. This may be a signal to pollinators that a flower is old and depleted of pollen and nectar.

Bright blue flowers which are attractive to us and bees.

 I am starting off with the evergreen Pentaglottis sempervirens  which  flowers during several months from spring into summer with bright blue flowers on long stems.  

It has deep reaching, black, thick roots and it is classified as one of the more difficult weeds on the RHS website although it is not native in the British Isles.

Several of my customers have it in their gardens and mostly don’t mind its invasive habits too much as it is such a valuable flower for bees and other insects.

It was introduced from south west Europe and now widely naturalized at least as far north as Walsall (!) and prefers  moisture retentive soils.

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Edible Uses

  • Edible flowers with similar use as the borage flower: They have a mild flavour and mucilaginous texture and are mainly used as an ornament in fruit drinks and salads.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                The Green Alkanet or Bugloss has similar uses as the Dyer’s or Spanish Bugloss (Alkanna tinctoria) .  The names Alkanet and Alkanna are from the Arabic al-hinna, the dye being similar to henna (from J. Barker’s ‘The Medicinal Flora of Britain and Northwestern Europe’ ). Bugloss means ox tongue, apparently because of the roughness of the leaves.
  •                                                                                                                                                                                        Other uses/facts are:                                                                                                                                 
  • They give a red dye
  • Contains small quantities of alkaloids
  • Bark and roots have shown antibiotic activity, particularly against Staphylococcus.
  • Applied to beneficial effect for varicose leg ulcers.
  • Accumulator of useful nutrients in the leaves which can be added to compost heaps or directly as a mulch (this is my own idea as the leaves are evergreen)

Genus Myosotis or the Forget-me nots.

Myosotis from the Greek, meaning “mouse’s ear” of which the foliage is thought to resemble. In the northern hemisphere they are colloquially denominated Forget-me-nots or Scorpion grasses. The colloquial name “Forget-me-not” was calqued from the German Vergissmeinnicht,  in Dutch Vergeet-me-niet and first used in English in AD 1398 through King Henry IV of England.

There are at least 7 native species mentioned in the Wild Flower Key by F. Rose.

The Wood Forget-me-not                         ( M. sylvatica) was all over our old garden and looked very pretty with the yellow dandelion flowers in spring!

The Water-Forget-me-not                   (M. scorpioides) also has large flowers and is therefore useful as an ornamental bog plant. In France, this plant is recommended for tired, sore eyes and, taken internally, for fatigue and poor spirits. (Med. Flora)

The Houndstongue (Cynoglossum officinale) can often be found along the coast and has attractive dull purplish-red flowers.

Some interesting facts from Wikipedia:

  • The name Houndstongue (and the latin genus Cynoglossum) comes from the roughness of the leaf. Other common names are:  houndstooth, dog’s tongue, gypsy flower and rats and mice (due to its smell).
  • Houndstongue may be pollinated by bees, and may also self-pollinate.

In 1725, houndstooth was presented in the family dictionary, Dictionaire oeconomique, as part of a cure for madness. In that book, madness was viewed as “a distemper, not only of the understanding, but also of the reason and memory, proceeding from a cold, which drys up everything it meets with that is humid in the brain.”

By the end of the 1830s, doctors in England were using houndstooth as an antiaphrodisiac to combat venereal excesses.

  • Herbalists nowadays, use the plant for piles, lung diseases, persistent coughs, baldness, sores, and ulcers but the effectiveness of all these uses is not supported by any scientific evidence.
  • In 1891, the U.S. state of Michigan identified houndstooth, along with flea-bane, rag weed, burdock, cockle-bur, and stickseed, as some of the worst weeds in the state.
  • It contains tumorigenic pyrrolizidine alkaloids. It is toxic to cows and is specially dangerous to pasture owners. Not that it is often seen, as far as I know. growing in pastures.                                                                                                                         But also from J. Barker’s Med. Flora
  • The root (gathered in the autumn of its second year) and to a lesser extent the fresh leaves have been used since ancient times as an emolient for cracked, chapped skin.
  • Internally it is a demulcent and sedative for coughs and is taken for haemorrhoids as well is applied to them. Besides the mucilage, gum, resin and essential oil, it contains two alkaloids cynoglossine and consolidine which are thought to contribute to the sedative effect.

Viper’s-bugloss or Blueweed (Echium vulgare)  is sometimes cultivated as an ornamental plant, and numerous cultivars have been developed. The cultivar ‘Blue Bedder’ has gained the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit.

As seen on the road to Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh. This lovely plant is also available in white!

I found some interesting facts on the website you can find here at ‘the Poison Garden’

Dioscorides recommended it for snake bite. William Coles, the proponent of the Doctrine of Signatures claimed the nutlets look like a viper’s head and the speckled stalk looks like snakeskin.

Bugloss,  means ox tongue, apparently because of the roughness of the leaves.

Echium vulgare is, sometimes, said to be the plant known in Australia as Patterson’s Curse but this is Echium plantagineum (Purple Viper’s Bugloss). It is called Patterson’s curse because, it is said, a Mrs Patterson brought it to Australia to decorate her garden not knowing that it would thrive and escape and become a serious problem for livestock. E. plantagineum is only native in South western British Isles in Cornwall and the Scilly Isles.

Like all plants containing pyrrolizidine alkaloids, consumption over a period can lead to liver failure, but no ill effects are seen initially. This leads to it being known as Salvation Jane in South Australia. It is drought hardy and may be the only foliage plant available in extended dry periods.

It is native to Europe and temperate Asia. It has been introduced to North America and is naturalised in parts of the continent including northern Michigan, being listed as an invasive species in Washington state.  It is found in dry calcareous grassland and heaths, bare and waste places, along railways and roadsides, and on coastal cliffs, sand dunes and shingle.

  • I recently read in the RHS magazine ‘The Garden’, Sept. 2018 (on the news page 8) that it is one of the most visited flower by bees. Information was collected via a mobile phone app launched last summer by the RHS and has found that gardeners and allotment holders could make their plots more inviting to pollinators by planting Viper’s Bugloss (Echium vulgare, Teasel (Dipsacus fullonum) and Toadflax (Linaria vulgaris), as these had the most bee-visits. See here

Oysterplant (Mertensia maritima) can be found along the shingly, sandy coast in North and Western British Isles. Also see PFAF Database on its edible uses:

Leaves – raw or cooked. They are said to taste of oysters. No-one has yet noticed a resemblance to oysters though not many of the tasters have ever eaten oysters! The flavour is fairly bland, the leaf is thick and has a very mucilaginous texture – it is probably this texture that reminds people of oysters.  Eaten by the Inuit of Alaska. Flowers – raw.

But if people would like to eat this plant it is best from cultivated stock as plant is not common!

Field and Purple Gromwell (Lithospermum spp.) are not too common and          L. purpureocaeruleum is probably the most attractive one. The blossoms are purple-reddish, then the colour of the flowers turns into a deep blue.  The fruits are bright white capsules,  with a glossy surface. They are very hard (hence the genus synonym Lithospermum, meaning “stone seed” for the hardness of these capsules).

The Lungworts (Pulmonaria spp.) are probably introduced although P. obscura or Suffolk Lungwort is native in old woods there.

The scientific name Pulmonaria is derived from Latin pulmo (lung). In the times of sympathetic magic, the spotted oval leaves of P. officinalis were thought to symbolize diseased, ulcerated lungs, and so were used to treat pulmonary infections. The common name in many languages also refers to lungs, as in English “lungwort”, German Lungenkraut, Dutch Longkruid, French herbe aux poumons andSerbian plućnjak

Pulmonaria are used as ornamental garden plants, particularly P. saccharata, P. angustifolia and P. longifolia. They are especially valued as groundcover in damp shaded areas, producing their blue and/or pink flowers in late winter and early spring, accompanied by dense clusters of heart-shaped leaves that are often strikingly mottled and marbled, throughout summer.

The following cultivars, of mixed or uncertain parentage, have gained the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit:

  • ’Blue Ensign’
  • ’Diana Clare’
  • ’Lewis Palmer’
  • ’Sissinghurst White’
  • ’Vera May’

The next member of the Boraginaceae Family is the Genus Symphytum or Comfrey. As there is too much to say about this plant I will leave this till next week! Hope to see you then.

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