The wildflower Echium plantagineum is an invasive weed introduced to Australia in the mid-nineteenth century. The plants can remain dormant for up to five years in the ground, waiting patiently for a lot of rain. Once they sprout, they grow like crazy, producing around 5,000 seeds in a year. Since the wildflower is drought-resistant, the hot, dry summer doesn’t kill it. On the contrary, it thrives, killing native wildflowers and vegetation by choking off their growth.
People need to keep their distance. Tiny bristles on the plant irritate the skin if handled. The pollen causes hay fever and allergies, particularly when there’s this much of it.
The most serious danger is that it’s also toxic. With a high concentration of pyrrolizidine alkaloids, it’s poisonous to horses, causing liver damage and death. Although horses don’t seek it out, they may eat it accidentally or when there’s nothing else. In the 2003 bushfires in Canberra, at least 50 horses died from eating the weed because it was the first thing to grow back on burned land, according to the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Equestrian Association.
The toxicity affects pigs as well because pigs and horses aren’t ruminants. Cattle are moderately susceptible, while sheep and goats are less susceptible. Ruminants have microorganisms in the stomach that can break down the pyrrolizidine alkaloids, but cows, sheep, and goats still suffer from extended exposure.
In South Australia, it is more commonly called “Salvation Jane.” Various theories exist about the origin of the name. Some say that farmers from the north of Adelaide coined the name in the early 1900s because they valued the weed as emergency livestock fodder. It grew when nothing else would, and they may not have realized yet how toxic it was. Others have speculated that the name originated because the flower resembled the bonnets worn by the Salvation Army ladies (called Janes). I’ve also read that bee-keepers bestowed the name because it’s a salvation for bees, flowering when the honey flow decreases. (And I can attest from personal observation that bees do love it.)