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

The Pentaglottis sempervirens or Green Alkanet. (picture by Ericoides-Wikipedia)

This week I would like to talk about most of our native genera of the Boraginaceae or Borage Family. This is family number 114 in Stace.

My customers sometimes complain about the Green Alkanet; scientifically known as Pentaglottis and to a less extend they complain about the abundance of seedlings of Forget-me-nots in their gardens, but I think that is just showing off! As who can be upset when you see all that magnificent blue, they are all wonderful weeds really!

All there uses and benefits will be explained in this as well as in the next post, which is entirely about the Comfrey.

Pictures by Matt Summers, unless stated.

Blue background is for general interest, Pink as a warning or medicinal use and green background for all other known uses such as food and wildlife.

The genera 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 petals. It can be green, white, yellow, orange, pink, purple, or blue. 

Most of the pollination is by hymenopterans, such as bees.

They mostly 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.

Lots of self-sown Green Alkanet in our very wild Bee-Garden at Borneo Street!

Pentaglottis sempervirens  or Green Alkanet

 I am starting off with Pentaglottis sempervirens  or Green Alkanet which is a neophyte according to the ‘Online Atlas of the British and Irish Flora’ and flowers during several months from spring into summer with bright blue flowers on long stems.  

It was introduced to British gardens before 1700 and was known from the wild by 1724. Already widespread at the time of the 1962 Atlas, it has increased further during the past forty years.

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 has deep reaching, black, thick roots and it is classified as one of the more difficult weeds on the RHS website as it can increase by seed whilst the roots regenerate easily if not everything has been removed.


  • 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.
  • It gives a red dye.
  • Contains small quantities of alkaloids.
  • Stem 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.

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 language it is 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 combination of 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)

Houndstongue as seen on Chesil Beach, Dorset

Cynoglossum officinale or Houndstongue

The Houndstongue (Cynoglossum officinale) can often be found along the coast and has unusual 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.
  • 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 nowadays growing in pastures.                                                                                                                        

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.

But also from J. Barker’s Med. Flora for presentday cures:

  • 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.
A stand of Viper’s-bugloss along the track to Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh, Scotland

Viper’s-bugloss or Echium vulgare

 This is a beautiful wildflower and  is sometimes cultivated as an ornamental plant or used in wildflower mixes. The cultivar ‘Blue Bedder’ has gained the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit.

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.

Viper’s – bugloss has got rough leaves.

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 was only native in South western British Isles in Cornwall and the Scilly Isles but at present has 514 records.

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.

I 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 by the RHS and had 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 (picture taken by Danielle Langlois, on a shingle beach at Pointe-à-la-Frégate, Québec, Canada.)

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 as 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 the plant is not common!

Purple Gromwell as seen along a nature walk near Lyme Regis, Dorset

Lithospermum spp. or Field and Purple Gromwell

Field and Purple Gromwell (Lithospermum spp.) are not too common and          Buglossoides purpurocaerulea (formerly known as Lithospermum purpureocaeruleum) or Purple Gromwell 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).

Suffolk Longwort (Picture by Miika Silfverberg in Wikimedia Commons)

Pulmonaria spp. or Lungworts

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 (and also see here, a fabulous article on 24 groundcovers for your garden) 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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