In the latest of our 'Wild Wanders' guide series, our Biodiversity Consultant Fiona Hall shines a light on a plant that almost all of us have seen... but few of us have ever really noticed.
Ivy-leaved toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis) is a wee evergreen plant you don’t often pay attention to. As soon as you do, however, you will spot it everywhere. It’s unobtrusive, shy and retiring, but very beautiful.
The flowers are small, purple and shaped like snapdragon blooms. With its spindly, ivy-shaped leaves, it can be found crawling over walls and boulders in both town and country. It creeps out of cracks in the mortar or holes in the wall and escapes into a beautiful creation.
Ivy-leaved toadflax is not rare, and can be seen in flower from April to October. The flowers are purply-blue, with a bit of yellow in the centre, the stems have a reddish tinge to them, and the leaves are quite a waxy green.
Although it’s common, you won’t find this plant in the very far north of Scotland (Angus, where I’m based, is pretty much the outer edge of its range).
Is it a native species?
Ivy-leaved toadflax is not actually a native plant, but it’s been on the island of Britain for several hundred years, so is considered ‘naturalised’. It is thought to have come here as seeds, brought over to Oxford from Italy inside the marble of some sculptures which were imported.
It was all over the parks and gardens in Oxford at first, and became known as ‘Oxford-weed’. It’s so pretty that its popularity grew, and it was welcomed into the walled gardens that were being created all over the UK. It was first recorded growing in the wild in 1640.
How does it spread?
It has adapted very cleverly to help itself colonise walls. The stalks and flowers initially grow upwards towards the light (called ‘positively phototrophic’ behaviour). However, once flowering has ended, the plant becomes negatively phototrophic, moving *away* from the light.
This means its seeds are pushed into dark cracks and holes in new areas of the wall - often excellent germination spots. And so the process continues every flowering season!
How can we use ivy-leaved toadflax?
The leaves are edible, and taste a little like watercress. It is sometimes added to salads in the Mediterranean, but I find it a wee bit too bitter to eat in large quantities.
The plant is full of vitamin C, and in the past has been eaten to protect against scurvy. It is also reported to have been used in India, to treat diabetes.
Ivy-leaved toadflax in folklore
Ivy-leaved toadflax has many other names: ‘Mother of thousands’ (close, but no, not ‘mother of dragons’), ‘wandering sailor’, ‘rabbit flower’, Coliseum ivy", ‘devil’s ribbon’, ‘Kenilworth ivy’, ‘penny wort’ and ‘Aaron’s beard’ - to name just a few!
The plant is supposed to offer protection against hostile activity and evil spells. So if you find some growing on the walls of your home or garden, think twice before weeding it out...