In October many wild flowers have faded or gone to seed, but Bristly Oxtongue, Helminthotheca echioides (formerly Picris echioides) is usually flowering and I have become rather fond of it, after encountering it on autumn holidays and walks.
Bristly Oxtongue is a member of the Asteraceae, the daisy family, and its flowers are quite similar to dandelions, sowthistles and other relatives – a mass of yellow ray florets.
It is a bristly and pimply plant. It grows up to 90cm (three feet) tall and has branching stems with elliptical to oblong, wavy edged, pimply and bristly leaves. The lower leaves have winged stalks but the upper ones lack stalks and clasp the stem. The flowers are followed by a pappus of parachuting white seeds.
It grows in rough grassy places, on the edge of fields and by the seaside. In East Anglia it can be found by the River Blyth estuary at Southwold and on the edge of some arable fields in south Norfolk. It was very common in North Kent on a recent visit. It is well distributed in England and Wales, less so in Scotland and Ireland. In Northern Ireland it is declining and is a priority species. Like many agricultural weeds, Bristly Oxtongue is probably an archeophyte (a species introduced to the British Isles before 1500 AD). Its natural home is around the Mediterranean; it has also been introduced to parts of North America.
Bristly Oxtongue is a very descriptive name for the plant. Flora Britannica also gives us Milton Keynes Weed (it is abundant there) and Richard Mabey’s book “Weeds” (Profile Books, 2012) gives us the local name of Langley-Beef. The latter was mentioned by agricultural improver William Ellis as a serious weed of peas. The name is a corruption of the French langue du boeuf (oxtongue) which incorporates the name of the Hertfordshire village of Kings Langley.
Names in other languages include the German Wurmsalat (worm salad), the Welsh tafod y llew gwrychog (lion bristletongue) and the Dutch dubbelkelk (double chalice).
The German name Wurmsalat and the scientific name Helminthotheca suggest that the plant could be used as an anthelmintic, to expel parasitic worms. The name echioides comes from the resemblance of the leaves to those of Viper’s Bugloss, Echium vulgare.
Young leaves of Bristly Oxtongue are edible, but the Plants For A Future (PFAF) website doesn’t encourage experimentation. The leaves are “Not wonderful raw … slightly better cooked. A rather bitter flavour.” I haven’t been tempted to try them. Fergus Drennan, however, says that the stems are amongst his favourites and describes them as “Mild, refreshing, solid, crunchy texture. Needs peeling.”
“Bristly Ox-tongue” is one of Alice Oswald’s wonderful poems in the book “Weeds and Wild Flowers” (Faber and Faber 2009), which is illustrated by equally lovely etchings by Jessica Greenman. I am obviously not the only person to be inspired by this pimply plant.