Viper's Bugloss (Echium vulgare)
Viper's Bugloss is one of my favourite British wildflowers. It looks like a kind of poor man's Delphinium, but flowers for ever and it's just great for bees. It's not an antidote to snake venom though, which belief is why herbalists gave it its common name. "Bugloss" supposedly derives from the Greek word for ox-tongue, which describes the plant's leaves.
It's unusual to find a flower like Viper's Bugloss which attracts all sorts of bees - honeybees, bumblebees and solitary bees. Butterflies and moths love it too. Honeybees have shorter flatter tongues, so for nectar they tend to visit more open platelike flowers with relatively easily accessible nectaries but relatively low reward. Bumblebees have longer tongues, up to 13mm for Bombus hortorum, which means they can access nectar hidden at the base of flowers with long floral tubes. These include wild Red Clover, Foxglove, vetches and Bird's-foot trefoil. Solitary bees cover the gamut of tongue lengths. They're mostly short tongued, so prefer low reward, easy access flowers, but some, including leafcutter bees and mason bees, have relatively long tongues and go for restricted access flowers with higher nectar rewards. The story for pollen is slightly more complicated; we're beginning to understand the importance of diversity of pollen in diet for all bees. Some plants have relatively high protein in their pollen and seem to be preferred. Viper's Bugloss pollen has three times the protein value of sunflowers, for example, according to Plants For Bees, the bible on this sort of thing. It's not just the features of flowers which folk should be considering - it's the time they're in flower. Good plants flowering outside periods of high nectar flow are invaluable. This obviously includes late autumn and Last - but by no means least - there's the look of the plant. I'm spring, but there's also a shortage in mid summer which beekeepers call the "June gap". Lavender is a great bee plant from this point of view - as is Bugloss. not having plants in my garden I don't like, however good they are for butterflies and bees. Viper's bugloss looks lovely to my eye, and has a nice strong, upright habit. It likes poor well drained soil and tolerates drought well - it does well on our roof, for example. It's biennial but self seeds, so once you've got it you've got it! I love it in blocks, where it's dark blue makes a striking - and buzzing! - statement in our gravel garden next to some Nepeta.