Driving up and down the A1, Britain’s main north-south route, in recent weeks we’ve been amazed by a vast and brilliantly colourful field of flowers by the side of the road. It turned out to be a field of echium (viper’s bugloss) – near Biggleswade in Bedfordshire, for the benefit of locals.
Now until I looked it up I wasn’t sure why anyone would grow it on an agricultural scale but there it is, as far as the eye can see. The odd thing is, perhaps, not that it’s there at all – but that the flowers are a mixture of every shade of blue (including some lovely pale sky blue shades), every shade of purple, plus a few plants in rose pink and an even scattering of slightly taller white-flowered plants. You’d expect an agricultural crop to be much more uniform. That field will produce enough seed to keep every seed company in the world supplied till the end of time. But of course that’s not why it’s there.
It turns out that echium oil is a good source of gamma-linolenic acid and stearidonic acid which are used in skincare and suncare products. The stearidonic acid has been “proven to decrease rigosity” – so there. So echium oil is used as a moisturiser, antiwrinkle cream, it has skin smoothing effects, promotes cardiovascular functions, it’s an anti-inflammatory and is used for the treatment of joints, eczema and pre-menstrual syndrome. Now you know.
And it’s early stages in the agricultural production of echium oil, but you can bet plant breeders are working to improve the oil content. And when they do, I guarantee their flowers will all be the same shade. And they’ll still be an impressive addition to the colours of our countryside.