A plant that survives in unlikely places
ALTHOUGH very common, most people probably do not even notice such a modest plant.
Investigate it though and the ivyleaved toadflax proves to be intriguing with a number of surprises, including an extraordinary adaptation to colonising walls so it can live free from competition.
The first surprise is that the flowers are very small but look at a closeup photograph and you will see they are beautiful, almost orchid-like.
It flowers for much of the year and is blooming now on walls in the village.
Growing only an inch or two in height, it has pale lilac two-lipped flowers like snapdragons with a yellow central blotch that acts as a guide for bees.
The leaves are evergreen, sometimes ivy shaped as its name suggests.
They appear on foragers’ list as edible but their taste, somewhat like watercress, is rather bitter and not very pleasant. Also off-putting is the suggestion they are slightly toxic.
The first part of its Latin name Cymbalaria muralia tells us about its cymbal shaped leaves.
The second tells us of its fondness for walls and it has a fascinating adaptation to growing on them (and rock crevices and shingle in the wild).
The flower stem at first grows towards the light to advertise its wares so that it can be seen by the bees.
Remarkably once fertilised its aims change.
Now the stem seeks out the dark, bending towards it so it can deposit the seed in crevices. That makes it adept at festooning walls, along with its ability to root at the nodes.
Another surprise is that while probably most who know it consider this toadflax to be native, it actually comes from Southern Europe, arriving here long ago.
We know it was established in gardens by 1602 and the first record from the wild dates from 1640. It is said to have been a stowaway with a shipment of Italian marble slabs to Oxford.
That we have the details is dubious but it may well be the way in which it reached our shores.
The Wildlife Trusts suggest looking out for toadflax in some of the leastpromising looking places.
“Although they might not look especially wildlife-friendly, our roadside verges, railway cuttings and waste grounds can provide valuable habitats for all kinds of plants and animals.,” they say.
“The Wildlife Trusts are involved in many projects to make these places as beneficial for wildlife as possible. We have a vision a network of habitats stretching across town and country that allow wildlife to move freely.”
Toadflax stays put, however.