Echium plantagineum, commonly known as purple viper's-bugloss or Paterson's curse, is a species of Echium native to western and southern Europe (from southern England south to Iberia and east to the Crimea), northern Africa, and southwestern Asia (east to Georgia). It has also been introduced to Australia, South Africa and United States, where it is an invasive weed. Due to a high concentration of pyrrolizidine alkaloids, it is poisonous to grazing livestock, especially those with simple digestive systems, like horses. The toxins are cumulative in the liver, and death results from too much Paterson's curse in the diet.
Echium plantagineum is a winter annual plant growing to 20–60 cm tall, with rough, hairy, lanceolate leaves up to 14 cm long. The flowers are purple, 15–20 mm long, with all the stamens protruding, and borne on a branched spike.
In the United States the species has become naturalised in parts of California, Oregon, and some eastern states and areas such as northern Michigan. In Oregon it has been declared a noxious weed.
In a study funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (part of the National Institutes of Health in the United States), the seeds were found to lower triglycerides. Researchers at Wake Forest University and the Harvard Center for Botanical Lipids fed mice a diet supplemented with echium oil and found that it had effects similar to fish oil in lowering triglyceride levels in blood plasma and the liver.
Echium oil contains high levels of alpha linolenic acid (ALA), gamma linolenic acid (GLA), and stearidonic acid (SDA), making it valuable in cosmetic and skin care applications, with further potential as an alternative to dietary fish oils.
Echium plantagineum contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids and is poisonous. When eaten in large quantities, it causes reduced livestock weight and death, in severe cases. Paterson's curse can kill horses and irritate the udders of dairy cows and the skin of humans. After the 2003 Canberra bushfires a large bloom of the plant occurred on the burned land, and many horses became ill and died from grazing on it. Because the alkaloids can also be found in the nectar of Paterson's curse, the honey made from it should be blended with other honeys to dilute the toxins.
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- "Paterson's Curse Echium plantagineum in the Pacific Northwest" (PDF). Oregon State University. 2010-09-24.
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- Echium Oil Reduces Triglyceride Levels in Mice. Research Spotlight. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). 2012.
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