Paterson’s Curse (Echium plantagineum), a Western Mediterranean annual rendered iconic by the extent and impact of its Australian invasions.
This colour out of space was so remarkable and totalising that it became the subject of local legends and names across the country. Known variously as Salvation Jane, Lady Campbell Weed, Blueweed, and Riverina Bluebell, its original appearances in both NSW and WA were attributed to well-meaning local planters in the 1880s and 1900s. Records and reports of the plant’s naturalisation predate the legendary attributions in both states (and in Victoria, where it was present by 1858), although the namesake planters may very well have had a hand in its local spread and the stinging blame that rode with it.
The otherworldly apparition of entire fields and roadsides captured in the species’ ultraviolet glow presumably demanded a near-religious interpretation of its disaster. One writer, vaguely recounting the Paterson origin story in 1905, described the weed as ‘another proof of Shakespeare’s conclusion that the evil men do lives after them, whilst the good is often interred with their bones.’
Although now virtually synonymous with noxiousness, many early pastoralists were vehement in defense of ‘Salvation Jane’ as a credible drought fodder tolerated by sheep and cattle (although it was a documented killer of pigs and horses). Beekeepers also debated its value.
Initial distributions of Paterson’s Curse across the country occurred first with public and private garden plantings from the 1840s, and then with the importation of Merino sheep from Spain and accompanying hay and seed. The plant was then spread by stock moves: as a wool hitchhiker, a contaminant of pasture seed and hay, and directly by surviving gut passage in sheep (and in crested pigeons). Mechanical earth movements have also contributed. Genetic study of Australian populations has shown broad diversity, implying many introductions into the country by means outside the typically narrow funnel of intentional horticulture.