A plant that sur­vives in un­likely places

Western Daily Press (Saturday) - - Countryside - BY MICHAEL STEPHENS

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.

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