One person’s curse is another’s salvation

In the early 19th century, a purple-flowered, native European plant, Echium plantagineum, made its way to Australia. It has been a villain and a hero to generations of farmers in the inland. The outback farmers gave it a few names that reflected their relationship with it. It is usually known as Patersons Curse.

Nurseries sold echium in the 1850s as an ornamental plant to be grown in country gardens. Due to its high seed production it soon escaped to the wild and spread rapidly. One of the main sources of the spread was the homestead garden of the Paterson family near Albury. The plant’s seeds were carried widely by the cattle that travelled along the stock route through the property.

Echium became known as Paterson’s Curse because it chokes pastures and poisons stock. The large number of seeds was difficult to control. When eaten it causes liver damage to animals resulting in loss of condition and sometimes death. Most susceptible are pigs and horses with sheep, goats and cattle less affected.

Less poisonous to cattle, Patterson’s Curse was used as emergency fodder for them during severe droughts. To some this rescue led them to call the weed Salvation Jane. Others suggest it was given this name by beekeepers because of the high quality of honey that it produces. The beekeepers almost stand alone against the modern eradication of the weed because it will reduce the quality of their honey.

Less commonly, but for at least a hundred years, the plant has also been called Riverina Bluebell. This it earned in the flower trade where it was commonly used in flower arranging.

Many years ago I worked as a farm hand on the Breeza Plain in the New England region of New South Wales. In the December heat I chipped the weed out of the wheat field before the harvestor came through. That summer the local kids, celebrating finishing school, used a lawn-mower to write a huge and frank expression into the Patterson’s Curse on the hill overlooking Tamworth, the major provincial town. This was Patterson’s Curse Hollywood-style.