These pretty blue flowers belie a sinister potential: This is blueweed or Viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare). a noxious weed in the Borage family, found in pastures and hayfields in the East and Midwest. It may pose an incipient threat to farming and ranching in Central Texas.
With the exception of one native wildflower, blueweed is not easy to confuse with anything else:
Non-native, Invasive Blueweed or Viper's Bugloss: Eliminate "WIth Extreme Prejudice"!
The annual or biennial blueweed plants grow to about 1 to 3 ft tall and are bristly all over like a bull nettle. Caution: Don’t try to pick or handle this plant without leather gloves! The leaves are simple, narrow, and oblong to lance-shaped (compare with native "Blue curls", below). Blueweed blooms from April to September with masses of sky blue flowers about a half-inch across which are arrayed in coiled or curled spikes on the leafy upper stem. You can see more images of blueweed on the Wikimedia Commons here. Probably the only native species with which it could be confused is Blue curls (Phacelia congesta):
Native Blue curls: DON'T PICK THIS!
Note the complex lobed and toothed leaves of Blue curls as well as the flat-topped arrangement of the coils of lavender flowers on a bare stalk. Blue curls is typically found at the shady edge of dense woods, often in sandier sites or creek banks. By contrast, in our area blueweed has shown up as an invader of highly disturbed sites such as caliche fill, gravel parking lots, and roadsides. Thus far, it doesn't seem to compete well in a healthy native grassland. Let's hope it remains confined by our tough native flora.
Blueweed and I have a history. In early June 1997, Eddie Hertz and I were looking for remnant prairie plants along the railroad right-of-way on Texas 29 between Liberty Hill and Burnet when we spotted a couple of clumps of blue flowers that neither of us recognized. That was about 5 miles west of Bertram on the north side of the road. We stopped and picked a specimen for the Refuge collection. When we got back to the office and identified the plant, red flags went up. Our standard reference work at that time, the Manual of the Vascular Plants of Texas by Correll and Johnston had this ominous description:
“Native of Europe, long ago introduced into the e. U.S. and now a serious pest in
the Northeast and Middle Atlantic States, west to South Dakota, Kansas,
and reported (but not seen by us) from Texas.”
Eddie and I returned to the spot and ripped up both of the two plants on the roadside, bagged them carefully for the trash, and scanned the area for other plants. We saw none. We notified several botanists and herbaria at the time of our discovery. We checked that spot on TX 29 for the next few seasons and saw no more blueweed.
Fast foreward to May 2010. Someone spotted a pretty blue flower in the yard of the new Victory Baptist Church on Texas 29….about 5 miles west of Bertram....and brought it to the attention of Sammye and Mike Childers. They did some research, identified the plant, and red flags went up once again. Unfortunately, a couple of acres of the church property had the pretty blue flowers all over them. Clearly, Eddie and I had overlooked some plants which were probably across a fence on private property back in 1997. In recent weeks, volunteer efforts have been organized to put a dent in the population of blueweed on the church property. The species doesn’t seem to have spread far in 13 years, but it’s already making conservation groups and the county extension agent a bit nervous. There are plans to start an herbicide treatment soon and future volunteer control efforts will probably be needed. I suggest keeping in touch with the Highland Lakes Chapters of the Texas Master Naturalists and the Native Plant Society of Texas for further information.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: If you think you’ve seen this flower on a roadside, ranch, or any other place, please notify the AgriLife Extension Agent for your county. Here are the local contacts for the Refuge area:
Burnet County Extension Office
Travis County Extension Office
Williamson County Extension Office
Obviously, if you observe this species on any Refuge tract or in our immediate area, please notify me ASAP.