When is a rabbit not a rabbit? 

When it’s a Toad!

Nature Notes with South Holderness Countryside Society


BEAUTIFUL: Ivy Leafed Toadflax. Photo by Tracey Netherton


WHAT do the Renaissance sculptors have to do with a small trailing garden plant found clinging to walls, old stonework, shingle beaches and pavements in most parts of the British Isles? 

The Ivy Leafed Toadflax, also known as Oxford Weed, is thought to have been transported to Oxford from Italy as seeds along with marble sculptures in the mid-17th century. It started growing on the walls and in the gardens in the Oxford area and is now that widespread it can be found almost anywhere – apart from the very north of Scotland. 

This beautiful little plant, Cymbalaria muralis, with purple flowers similar to tiny snap-dragons and a little yellow centre, became very popular in the walled gardens of the time and soon spread rapidly. This spread led to some of its names: Travelling Sailor, Climbing Sailor and Wandering Sailor, Wandering Jew, Creeping Jenny and also Mother of Thousands. Its appearance on Kenilworth castle gave it the local name of Kenilworth Ivy, in Italy it is known as The plant of the Madonna or Coliseum Ivy, and in France Ruine-de-Rome. 

Despite the leaves resembling evergreen ivy the two species are not related, but Ivy-leafed toadflax is a member of the plantaginaceae family the same as the snapdragon whose flower it also resembles. To identify Toadflax you need to look at the lower lip of the flower, or the Palate, and it should have two lobes; but why Toadflax? Well, while you are trying to discover if it has two lobes look at the flower face-on, and there is the clue. Actually, the reason is lost somewhere in botanical history, but the flower could actually look like the open mouth of a toad. Or could it be that both the flower and the toad like similar places to grow and hide? Personally I prefer another local name, Wall Rabbits. While you are looking for the two lobes just flick the flower upsidedown and give it a gentle squeeze. Those two lobes become rabbit’s ears and the flower is the rabbit’s head! 

If you are absolutely 100 per cent positive on your plant identification, this little gem has a few helpful uses. The leaves are edible and can be used in salads; they have a flavour similar to watercress. They are also high in vitamin C and were used as an antidote to scurvy, or have anti-scorbutic properties, and have also reportedly been used in India to control diabetes. Having problems with evil spells or hexes? Then you are in luck. It is suggested that Ivy leafed Toadflax offers protection against these and can break those annoying hexes! In return it has magical properties of charms against spells and can banish negativity. You could also try creating a yellow dye by using the tiny flowers, although this would deprive insects from an important food source, and the flower relies on insect pollination. 

This delightful little plant has a very clever method for quickly and successfully colonising old stonework. It involves it being negatively phototropic. Normally you would expect tendrils to do this as it allows them to find and wrap around dark objects and to then climb up them for support. So why would a flower purposely turn its head away from the sun? When in full bloom the flower faces the light as you would expect, but as the flower starts to fade the flower stalk turns to allow the seed head to bend the other way. This means that when they open they are already facing a perfect host area and the seeds will be sprung into the dark cracks of the supporting stones or the shadows of the base of the wall where they can then germinate. 

We have a beautiful patch of Ivy leafed Toadflax on the porch at Ivy House. Quite appropriate really. I’m pretty sure it has been there for as long as the South Holderness Countryside Society have been there. I must admit, that was the first place I really looked at this little plant. Actually, I say little, but it covers quite a large surface area. The old cobbles of the wall are perfect for it to thrive and I think the only time I have seen it depleted was when it seemed to become overrun with ants. It is back in its full glory now, hopefully right the way through until October. 

Next time you are out exploring have a look at the flashes of purple coming from walls along verges and crumbling stonework and see if you can find either the toad or the rabbit.