A personal diary about life in a country town, Bungendore NSW Australia

  Sunday 9 November 2003

Sheep seem to be able to eat the plant but it gets them in the end just the same. Eating honey from it however is delicious. Ours comes from Weerona Apairies in Sutton.
Curse you Mr. Paterson 

As I write this, we've heard that in the last month, 26 horses in the ACT region have died from eating Paterson's Curse. A declared noxious weed Paterson's Curse (Echium plantagineum) is in the family Boraginaceae that includes some useful herbs and garden plants such as Borage, and other toxic weeds such as yellow burr weed (Amsinckia spp.), viper's bugloss (E. vulgare) and common heliotrope (Heliotropium europaeum). There are also some varietal changes in Echium and the large photo at the top taken in South Australia a few weeks ago, is probably one of them.

The reason the horses have died now, when the weed has always been around, is due to the spring rains after a long drought and the bushfires. The pasture grasses in the paddocks around the ACT have not responded quickly enough to smother the Paterson's Curse. Just as probable a reason was the hay that came from interstate and was fed in the drought was full of Patersons Curse and weed seeds. Instead of the horses eating it diluted as part of other feed, it's been the major part of their diet in some paddocks.

The plant contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids, which are toxic to livestock, particularly horses, though sheep can graze it for a time. Still, prolonged grazing of Paterson's curse is harmful even to sheep as the alkaloids eventually cause liver damage, especially if stock consume large amounts of this weed in winter and spring and then graze on common heliotrope over summer.

The plant has been found listed in English mail order seed catalogs in the 1840s. This is probably how it was introduced into Australia.

"The earliest record of Paterson's curse (Echium plantagineum) in Australia was at the Camden gardens of John Macarthur near Sydney in 1843 where it had been introduced as as ornamental. Subsequently it appeared in nursery catalogues. Paterson's curse, also known as Salvation Jane, was first noted as a serious weed in 1889 at Gladstone near Port Pirie, South Australia, and at Cumberoona near Albury in NSW in 1890. By 1900, it had been recorded from many areas and was well established as a weed throughout south-eastern Australia."  Weedscrc

It is common belief is that it is named after the Paterson family who lived at Cumberoona, NSW near Albury. When I was growing up, just a bit further up the Murray river I can remember seeing the plants slashed and fed to sheep in drought times. Its use as an emergency fodder gave it the 'Salvation Jane' alternative name.

Until I started investigating, I didn't know there was more than one variety of the prickly purple-flowered plant. How do you tell the difference between Vipers Bugloss and Paterson's Curse?

"Both are annual or biennial herbs to about 1m high, which start out as a rosette, elongating to a vertical flowering stem. Patersonís curse stems are more likely to be widely branching, and viperís bugloss single-stemmed, but both species may adopt either habit. The blue-purple flowers are large and showy. Viperís bugloss can be distinguished by the coarse prickly hairs, which make it painful to handle, and the much narrower leaves in the rosette stage. The stem leaves (as opposed to the basal rosette leaves) are heart-shaped at the base in Patersonís curse, but not in viperís bugloss.

Patersonís curse is toxic to pigs and horses, and the hairs of both plants may irritate cowís udders. Sheep are more resistant but over a number of years they develop liver damage, which may cause death after sudden stress on the liver as from pregnancy or intake of lush feed." Eurobodalla Shire notes

Is it all bad news? No, it's an attractive plant, very pretty in large fields and along road edges. And it has other attributes than just killing off stock. Patterson's Curse is one of the top ten native plants for bee keepers and makes an excellent honey. It's estimated to cost agriculture millions of dollars a year as a noxious weed, and yet to be worth hundreds of thousands to bee keepers. It's been called the single best protein source for honey in New South Wales. The Salvation Jane name is much easier to sell then Paterson's Curse Honey although Vipers Bugloss honey is available widely in New Zealand.

Then there's the herbal benefits. Mrs. Grieve in her Modern Herbal (1920's) quotes the ancient's on Vipers Bugloss and even if they were mistaken about the remedy for snake bite (which came from using the Doctrine of Signatures approach that if it looks like it, it must have an effect on it.)

In a recent Sydney Morning Herald, in their Science section (6/11/2003), Basil Roufogalis, Professor of Pharmaceutical Chemistry at the University of Sydney pointed out that the oil from the Patterson's Curse seed has "a high ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 fatty acids, similar to that of fish oil. It also has a very high content of an important essential oil called stearidonic acid. The advantage of obtaining a fish-oil-like material from a seed rather than the sea, is obvious from a conservation point of view but it would also be expected to be free of pollutants such as mercury that are sometimes found in fatty fish". The omega 3 acid is polyunsaturated and provides protection against heart attacks by lowering blood cholesterol but there's another use in cosmetics that is attracting interest. Applied to the skin the oil reduces wrinkles.

A curse Mr. Patterson or a salvation Miss Jane? I can hear the harvesters rumbling down the road now. Marginal land, bees come first, then an oil seed harvest. Can someone please move the bloody horses?


What horses eat is a scintillating daily topic at our place. Daughter Kate currently has three horses and we get to feed them when she's busy (and take their rugs off or put them on in the dark. Aren't we lucky?).
She's selling one, if you'd like to buy it...see the details here.... please!

The West Australian Department of Agriculture has the best fact sheet  

The CSIRO have a list of
biological controls

Waite campus at Adelaide Uni have  the Weed Management CRC. A good
links page to more information.

Why Vipers? What's a Bugloss?
Bugloss is apparently derived from Bull's tongue and referes to the shape of the leaves. Viper refers to the spotted body of the stalk, or the shape of the seed (it's angular and a long snakey 'tongue'). Take your pick.

Americans know it as Blueweed






  Fred Harden ©2003 <thinktag> After a few days, these entries are added to the Archive Menu

Bungendore Country Diary by Fred Harden