Close-up View of the Wildflower
- revised & updated -
by Brian Johnston (Canada)
In a Micscape article written several
years ago, I presented images of a dwarf viper’s bugloss plant that I
had found late in the growing season. It was a mere ten
centimetres high, and certainly didn’t look like the typical plants
shown in wildflower references. During the intervening years, I
have found many taller and more representative plants in my
vicinity. Strangely, the best examples seem to be found in the
most unlikely locations. Several shown in this article were
growing up through cracks in the concrete median of a four-lane
highway. Previous experience has given me great respect for the
entire plant’s coating of tiny, but vicious, hair-like spines, and so I
arrived on the scene with a pair of pliers, a pair of garden shears,
and a cardboard tube. Holding the base of the stem with the
pliers, I cut through it with the shears, and then, again using the
pliers, pushed the base into the cardboard tube. It was then easy
to transport the plant without injury to my hands. A small group
of people walking beside the highway had stopped to watch, and they
talked animatedly to one another during the process. Traffic
noise prevented me from hearing what they said, but I can guess that it
had something to do with my sanity!
Viper’s bugloss, sometimes called
‘blueweed’, belongs to the Borage family (Boraginaceae), members of which
usually have flowers that are attached to one side of a coiled branch
resembling the tail of a scorpion. This coiled branch, or ‘scorpioid cyme’, uncoils as the
flowers bloom. The name ‘Viper’ is thought to derive from the
shape of the plant’s seed, which resembles a viper's head. ‘Bugloss’ is
derived from the Greek word for "ox tongue", since the leaves are
thought to resemble this part of the animal’s anatomy.
The plant shown below is
approximately 40 cm high, and at the peak of its blooming cycle.
Notice that the stems that branch out from the main stem are completely
covered in small green sepals, (modified leaflets), that cluster
around the base of buds and flowers.
At the tip of another younger
plant, the uncoiled scorpioid cymes have many tiny pink buds, and
the occasional flower on their upper surfaces. What looks like a
fuzzy coating of downy hairs is actually a forest of cruelly sharp
spines able to penetrate skin with ease!
Here is a front view of two cymes,
each with a single blooming flower and many pink buds. The cyme
blooms first near the stem. The tips of the two cymes in the
image are coiled back towards the stem beneath the flowers.
Notice the red spots on the main stem.
The two images below graphically
demonstrate why it is unwise to handle Viper's Bugloss without gloves!
In the first of the two, a young stem has very sharp, clear, almost
crystalline hairs with reddish, swollen bases. The second image shows
an older stem with additional fine, softer hairs covering its surface.
Compare the front view of a cyme
seen at the bottom of the left image, with the side view in the image
on the right. Notice the bubbles of insect ‘spit’ at the base of
the cyme in the right-hand image.
Just to the left of the blue flower
in the image that follows is an older bloom that has shriveled up, and
turned a deep purple colour.
Notice in the image below, that
buds are pink in colour, young flowers are pinkish-purple, and mature
flowers are intensely blue.
The photograph that follows shows
the main features of the flower. There are five shallow lobes along the
edge of the fused corolla. Two of the lobes are larger than the rest,
and project out farther than the other three. The outer surface of the
corolla is covered in fine hairs (sericeous),
but the inner surface is hairless (glabrous).
Five stamens, (the male, pollen bearing organs), are usually present
along with a bi-lobed stigma, (the female organ where pollen lands).
Both the stamens and pistil protrude from the corolla (are exserted). Most flowers are
one, to one and a half centimetres in diameter.
At the base of the flower there is
a ring of long, thick, bristly sepals (modified leaves). After each
flower has finished blooming, it shrivels up and falls away, leaving
the ring of sepals which can be seen in the image below.
Each stamen is composed of a
hairless red filament which supports a grayish-green anther. One
of the stamens is usually considerably shorter than the rest. The
flower on the left, in the left hand image, clearly shows the
arrangement of the corolla’s lobes.
The number of spiny sepals on each
cyme is great. If you look very closely at the image on the left,
you can see a tiny drop of blood (mine!) released by a finger when I
accidentally touched the plant while preparing to take a
photograph. (This plant is even more difficult to work with than
those of the thistle family!)
As a viper’s bugloss bud develops,
its colour transitions through white, pink, red, and finally in the
open flower, to blue.
The anthers of a flower are so
small that it is not possible to get a close-up macro-photograph with
all of them in focus. Notice in the left image, the hairiness of
the corolla’s outer surface. In the right image, notice the
curved immature filaments that can be seen in the open ‘mouth’ of a bud.
Using a microscope equipped with
dark-ground illumination reveals the detail of one of the anthers. Most
of the pollen grains appear to be white, and several fine threads can
be seen between grains.
A photomicrograph of the filament
reveals that it is not as smooth as it looks to the naked eye. Several
pollen grains are visible clinging to its surface in the image.
By adjusting the focus of the
dark-ground condenser, it is possible to accentuate different details.
The filament holding the anther is out of focus in the lower right of
The image below shows another
anther that appears to be completely encrusted with translucent pollen
The hairy pink style supports a
At the end of each of the stigma
lobes there is the bulb-shaped protuberance visible in the dark-ground
image below left. The bulb appears to be covered in strangely
shaped protuberances that can be seen in the image on the right.
With the aid of phase-contrast
illumination, the spots on one of the hairs of the style can be
The object below was also present
on the surface of the style. I am not certain what it could be.
(Perhaps a fungal spore?)
Blue wildflowers are not uncommon,
however very few have the startlingly blue colouration of viper’s
bugloss. Although difficult to handle without blood-loss, it is
definitely one of the stars of the botanical kingdom.
Some of the macro-photographs were
taken with an eight megapixel Canon 20D DSLR equipped with a Canon EF
100 mm f 2.8 Macro lens which focuses to 1:1. A Canon 250D
achromatic close-up lens was used to obtain higher magnifications in
Other photographs were taken with
an eight megapixel Sony CyberShot DSC-F 828 equipped with achromatic
close-up lenses (Canon 250D, Nikon 5T, 6T, Sony VCL-M3358, and shorter
focal length achromat) used singly or in combination. The lenses screw
into the 58 mm filter threads of the camera lens.
Still other photographs were taken
with an five megapixel Sony CyberShot DSC-F 717 equipped with the
achromatic close-up lenses mentioned in the previous paragraph.
The photomicrographs were taken
with a Leitz SM-Pol microscope (using dark-ground and phase-contrast
condensers), and the Coolpix 4500.
A Flower Garden of
A complete graphical index of all of my flower articles can be found here.
The Colourful World of Chemical Crystals
A complete graphical index
of all of my crystal articles can be found here.
The following references have been
found to be valuable in the identification of wildflowers, and they are
also a good source of information about them.
- Dickinson, Timothy, et al.
2004. The ROM Field Guide to Wildflowers of Ontario. Royal
Ontario Museum & McClelland and Stewart Ltd, Toronto, Canada.
- Thieret, John W. et al.
National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers -
Eastern Region. 2002. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. (Chanticleer Press,
Inc. New York)
- Kershaw, Linda. 2002. Ontario
Wildflowers. Lone Pine Publishing, Edmonton, Alberta,Canada.
- Royer, France and Dickinson,
Richard. 1999. Weeds of Canada. University of Alberta
Press and Lone Pine Publishing, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
- Crockett, Lawrence, J.
2003. A Field Guide to Weeds (Based on Wildly Successful
Plants, 1977) Sterling Publishing Company, Inc. New York,
- Mathews, Schuyler F.
2003. A Field Guide to Wildflowers (Adapted from Field Book
of American Wildflowers, 1902), Sterling Publishing Company, Inc.
New York, NY.
- Barker, Joan.
2004. The Encyclopedia of North American Wildflowers.
Parragon Publishing, Bath, UK.
Microscopy UK or their contributors.
Published in the July
2008 edition of Micscape.
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