Meet: Common Toadflax.
And thou Linaria, mingle in my wreath, Thy golden dragons”
Anne Pratt, ‘Toadflax’
The scientific name of this odd looking plant is Linaria vulgaris. Its common names are wide and varied, but the most well known is Common or Yellow Toadflax. It is thought that this name came about because the flowers look like little toads, with the wide mouth of the flower being similar to the wide mouth of a toad. The 17th Century botanist, William Coles suggested that it was so-called because toads were known to take shelter amongst the growth. Many of its other common names are because of its similarity in colour to eggs and butter. These include Eggs and Butter, Eggs and Bacon, Eggs and Collops, Bread and Butter, and Buttered Haycocks. My sister and I always called it the Fried Egg Plant when we were children, before we learned any of its ‘true’ names.
It also has a number of names connecting it with the Virgin Mary: Lady’s Slipper, Madonna’s Herb, Mary’s Flax and Virgin’s Flax. It has other names because of its similarity in appearance to flax: Flaxweed, False Flax, Devil’s Flax. Even its Latin name, Linaria, translates as ‘Flax’.
But these are not all of its names. It is thought that it has so many because of its proliferation as a ‘weed’. It is also known as Bride-weed, Bride Wort, Churnstaff, Devil’s Ribbon, Dragon-bushes, Fluellin, Gallwort, Jacob’s Ladder, Larkspur, Lions Mouth, Pattens and Clogs, Pedlar’s Basket, Ramsted, Yellow Rod, and Wild Snapdragon.
Toadflax was historically used as a method of protection against witchcraft. In England, three Toadflax seeds strung on a linen thread were said to ward of evil. It was a particularly useful plant for breaking hexes. In Scotland, walking around a Toadflax plant three times was said to unbind any spell. During the 17th Century, many people wore Toadflax on the soles of their feet to ward off fevers.
Toadflax can be seen flowering from June to November and can generally be found growing on disturbed ground, as well as along hedgebanks, on waysides, in woodland clearings and on waste grassy places with dry, well-drained gravelly, sandy or chalky soils. In the UK, common toadflax is not generally found in meadows, pasture and wetlands. It thrives on nitrogen rich soils and tolerates heavy metal poisoning.
It’s currently growing on the sandy bank near the pond, down in the northern corner of the meadow of the Nature Project. This was created two years ago after the pond was dredged, and so is perfect for Toadflax.
Toadflax is an early colonizer plant, and so will usually only flourish for a few years until a better competitor moves in. Despite this, as a species they’ve been traced back as far as 400,000 years ago in the UK, with their seeds found in the Hoxnian Interglacial Strata at Clacton. Other sites across England and in Wales consistently place it in strata from the last Ice Age. Its persistent role in our native ecosystems is clear, even if it is mainly associated with freshly disturbed corners of the landscape. In other parts of the world, such as North America, it is an invasive species. It has escaped from cultivation to naturalise itself in many states of the USA.
The plant is mainly pollinated by bumblebees. The shape of the underlip makes it impossible for smaller, weaker insects to gain access. The flower only opens when it’s forced to do so by the bulk of the bee, and, once inside, a long tongue is required to access the pollen. Other insects do use it as a food source, however. It had been known to attract a selection of insects, including the Sweet Gale Moth (Acronicta euphorbiae), the Mouse Moth (Amphipyra tragopoginis), Silver Y (Autographa gamma), Calophasia lunula, Gorgone Checkerspot (Charidryas gorgone carlota), Toadflax pug, (Eupithecia linariata), Satyr Pug (Eupithecia satyrata) Falseuncaria ruficiliana), Bog Fritillary Boloria eunomia Pyrrhia umbra, Brown Rustic (Rusina ferruginea, and Stenoptilia bipunctidactyla.
The fruit of the Toadflax plant is a small, round, dry capsule. When it ripens, the top opens and the many seeds held within are thrown out as the plant sways. The seeds are flattened in shape and lie in the centre of a circular wing. This helps to carry them some distance from the parent plant.
The plant also has a long history of use in folk medicine for a variety of ailments, though it is rarely used today. The whole plant can be collected shortly after it flowers, and it can be used either fresh or dried. When fresh it has a bitter, slightly acrid odour that dissipates as it dries.
A tea made from the leaves is both a laxative and a strong diuretic, and as such has been used through history to treat jaundice, liver diseases and dropsy. A leaf tea or an ointment made from the flowers was used for the treatment of skin diseases and piles. A traditional cooling ointment can be made by chopping up the whole of the fresh herb and boiling it in lard until it crisps, then straining it. The resulting ointment is green in colour and is said to be a good application for piles, sores, ulcers and skin eruptions.The 16th Century herbalist, John Gerard stated ‘the decoction openeth the stopping of the liver and spleen, and is singular good against the jaundice which is of long continuance,’ and goes on to say that ‘a decoction of Toadflax taketh away the yellownesse and deformitie of the skinne, being washed and bathed therewith.’
Care should be taken with its use as it is slightly toxic. It contains an acrid flavoured oil that is said to be poisonous, though there are been no recorded incidents of it causing harm. Cattle will avoid eating it while grazing but farmers should avoid it’s accidental inclusion in dried feed.
In addition to its medicinal uses, the flowers can also be used to make a yellow dye. Plus, if you soak them in milk, they’re said to make a great fly repellent.
Whilst it is generally viewed as a weed, the plant can be a great addition to a garden. This is especially true of a garden aimed at children. The flowers can be made to ‘talk’ by squeezing the base of the corolla. They also look great in a vase of cut flowers and last well as such.
I spent some time with this plant for day 45 of 365 Days Wild.
If you’d like to learn more about Toadflax yourself, here are some of the sources that I used to get my information.