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 week I have decided to celebrate a ‘weed’ that I have seen a hundred yards from my house in East Finchley, and also in the ravines in Central Toronto – Common toadflax. What a world traveller this plant is. In Canada, it is also known as Butter and Eggs, possibly a reflection on the delicious but dairy-heavy breakfasts that are available everywhere in that noble country. When I was a small child, my brother and I would pluck the flowers from Snapdragons in my grandmother’s garden and chase one another around whilst pretending to ‘bite’ with the blooms. It comes as no surprise that Common toadflax is also used around the world for the same kinds of capers, and that many of its other names refer to its shape – Calve’s Nose, Puppy Dog’s Mouths, and my favourite, Squeezejaws.
Common toadflax is native to Europe and most of Eurasia, but was introduced to North America about 300 years ago, and is listed in as a noxious weed in several provinces and states. It is certainly a tough, perennial plant, which can even survive hard-pruning, but it is useful for pollinators. Its flowers need a heavy insect to open them, and so, like our domesticated antirrhinums (which are part of the same family) it is a great favourite with bumblebees.
Common toadflax has been used to produce a yellow dye for cloth in Germany, and was boiled in milk as a flykiller in Sweden. It has been used medicinally for liver problems, maybe because its yellow colour indicated that it might be useful against jaundice. Its flowers were also used to make an eye ointment. Although the plant is not native to North America, it has been used by the Iroqouis as an ingredient in a potion against enchantment, and by the Chippewa people to counteract congestive diseases. There is something about its elegant shape and delicate colours that makes it look as if it would be health-giving, to my eye at least.
One of the most delightful alternative names for Common toadflax is ‘Imprudent Lawyer’ (sometimes written as ‘Impudent Lawyer’). How on earth this innocent flower came to be associated with the legal profession is anybody’s guess, but I fear that the plant has been given this name because of the size of its ‘mouth’. And while we are on the subject of names, ‘Brideweed’ and ‘Bridewort’ are yet more ways to refer to Linaria vulgaris. Is this because the freshness of the flowers made it perfect for a bride’s bouquet or is it, as described in Andy’s Northern Ontario Wildflowers because the plant was used as a cure for a pig disease called ‘Bride?’ The explanation, as with so many of these things, is lost in history, but how I love that one ‘weed’ can have so many different local titles. It seems to me that we name the things that we love and notice, and on that basis, Common toadflax is a very well loved plant indeed.