Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Dear Readers, this plant is so delicate and elegant that for a while I was convinced that it was solely a garden flower. But then I saw it cropping up on wasteland, and seeding itself in hedgerows in Dorset and Somerset, and came to the conclusion that it has hopped over the fence and established itself ‘in the wild’. And once I noticed it, I started seeing it everywhere. The photos here are from my Aunt Hilary’s garden in Somerset, but there is plenty of Purple Toadflax on the mean streets of North London, where only those carrying skinny lattes dare to tread.
And what a sweetheart it is! The flowers are popular with honeybees, and resemble those of a pint-sized snapdragon (and indeed, the plant is also known as Perennial Snapdragon). In addition to this, the leaves are the foodplant of the caterpillars of the Toadflax Brocade moth (Calophasia lunula). These are spectacular creatures, with their neon yellow stripes and black spots, and it’s almost worth ‘encouraging’ Purple Toadflax just for a chance of seeing them. For some more splendid photos, have a look at the Back in Birdland blog. In North America, where Common Toadflax (Linaria vulgaris) has become a problem, the Toadflax Brocade has been introduced as a biological control. In the UK the moths are at the northern end of their habitat range, and are classified as rare, so if you see one, or the larvae, you are extremely lucky!
Purple Toadflax was introduced to the UK from Italy in the 1830’s, and was recorded in the wild shortly afterwards, thereby joining the native Common Toadflax and introduced Ivy-leaved Toadflax. It is a most undemanding little plant, flowering from May through to September and providing nectar the whole time. The Guardian’s Alys Fowler championed it as a garden plant a while back, and for information on the available varieties, you can have a look here. I must admit to a preference for the original purple version, though you can now buy it in white, pink and mauve.
Purple Toadflax also seems to be a favoured nectar-plant of the rare Wool Carder Bee (Anthidium manicatum), a large and solitary bee which uses the hairy leaves of plants like Stachys byzantina (Lamb’s-ear) in order to line its nest. What a pleasure it would be to have these insects in the garden! I can imagine planting up a pot of Purple Toadflax next to a pot of Lamb’s Ear in my front garden next year, just to see what happens.