Flora and fauna: Little plant is a favourite of gardeners
Ivy-Leaved Toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis)
LUCKILY, ivy-leaved toadflax, which is neither an ivy nor a flax, is a plant that goes by many other names – Oxford Ivy, Mother of Thousands, Wandering Sailor and Pennywort are among the best known of them.
Wort is a suffix derived from the old English word wyrt, which is related to the even older term meaning root, and many years ago was generally used to indicate that a plant had some medicinal value, often attached to the word for the body part it was believed to help.
Though somewhat bitter, ivy-leaved toadflax can be eaten sparingly in salad, although it arrived in Britain so long after the old Anglo Saxon “herbals” were first compiled, it is not as known as other plants for its medicinal value, principally to prevent scurvy, and, in India, rumoured to have been used to alleviate diabetes. (Don’t!)
The Oxford linked name is the main clue as to its arrival.
The seeds, or traces of the plant are believed to have arrived on Italian sculptures that were imported to Oxford at the start of the 17th century by collectors linked to the university who had been travelling in Europe.
Though the plant is native to southern Italy, it didn’t seem to mind the change of climate on its introduction to Britain.
It thrived and spread quickly around the walls of many of the Oxford colleges, and indeed it gradually became so common that it was also termed the “Oxford Weed”.
Gardeners loved this pretty little plant which is related to the snapdragon. (Close examination reveals the snapdragon appearance of the small mauve and white flowers which peer out of the ivy-looking foliage.)
These gardeners very probably added to the small plant’s success by introducing it onto their own walls, so propelling it around the country.
And ivy-leaved toadflax does have a very special knack which speeds its spread.
After the flowers have been pollinated, the seed capsules react negatively to light and turn towards the darkness of the wall. This causes the seeds to be shed into tiny crevasses in the stones, where they can safely germinate.
So the Oxford Ivy can now be found almost everywhere where there are old and willing walls.
Dr Richard Warren is a botanist living in Barnard Castle