Country Diary: Stem of plant resembles a serpent's skin

Echium vulgare known as Vipers Bugloss in full bloom.Echium vulgare known as Vipers Bugloss in full bloom.
Echium vulgare known as Vipers Bugloss in full bloom.
It's been an interesting week. It started with a phone call from Ian Robinson of Filey Dams' fame, requesting we visit him regarding the possibility of Michael making a dozen nest boxes for the reserve. Having discussed details, we later called at Flixton Saw-Mill for a dozen lengths of 6ft treated pine. The salesmen were most friendly and efficient, and we were soon on our way.

Departing, we observed many yellow tree lupins blooming on a sandy bank, creating a splash of colour.

Whilst in the area, we called to see our dear friends Barry and Vera – retired Folkton farmers. It’s many years since we last met them, and unfortunately Barry was out. Thankfully, Vera was at home, and we exchanged a mountain of memories.

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We knew they owned Spell Howe Plantation, beside the road to Hunmanby. Enquiring how their baneberry site was, we were told that the flowers had bloomed, but were getting overgrown by brambles, alas. It seems our local Yedmandale site, could be getting deprived of light. Maintenance problems could reduce our rarities.

Vera showed us a swallow’s nest in their barn. It was built of mud, and contained four chicks. A nest may be occupied several years in succession by the same birds. What a tribute to their amazing navigation skills. As we spoke, the parent dashed through the open door to catch food balls of small insects for the young.

Tree sparrows have become severely reduced in numbers in recent years. It’s a hole-nesting bird that will frequently take over tit nest boxes in woodland. They’ve even been known to build on top of a brood of young blue tits. Filey Dams’ ornithologists have designed perfect nest boxes to help increase the population of tree sparrows. The boxes are spacious; of natural wood; with hinged lid for opening, and holes in the base for ventilation and to prevent condensation. They’re a great success and tree sparrows can’t move in quickly enough!

Friends near Scarborough recently invited us to view their Echium. Grown from seed in a blue-glazed pot, it took pride of place in their garden. Towering skywards, its massive spike of bright blue, bell-shaped flowers was an impressive sight. We’d seen them whilst on holiday in Portpatrick, when visiting Logan Botanical Gardens, and a huge specimen in a garden at Ilfracombe, but never such a local specimen.

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However, its smaller wild relative, Echium vulgare, known as Viper’s Bugloss which we discovered many years ago, was worth seeking. Imagine our surprise to find several plants in roughly the same location on dry sandy soil, near the Marine Drive.

From June until September, its tall spikes of flowers may be sought especially near the sea. Attaining almost a metre in height, the stem is roughly hairy, and speckled like a serpent’s skin. In the 17th century it was believed to be effective against snake venom.

The spike is composed of numerous short sprays of flowers. The buds droop in a cluster of rosy-pink shades. Opening, they mature to a bright vivid blue.