Plant Profile: Ivy-leaved toadflax

Cymbalaria muralis: Ivy-leaved toadflax, ivywort, Kenilworth ivy, coliseum ivy, Oxford ivy, mother of thousands, mother of millions, thousand flower, pennywort, wandering sailor, Aaron’s beard, pedlar’s basket, rabbits, ruine-de-Rome (French), zimbelkraut (German), muurleeuwenbek (Dutch).

“Cymbalaria ….. runneth and spreadeth on the ground and clymeth and hangeth on walls even as Ivie or Chickweed doth, the branches are verie small, round and smooth, limmer and pliant.”

John Goodyer, 17th Century Botanist.

I’ve been up north this weekend, sampling the delights of Beverley in the East Riding of Yorkshire. What a fine town Beverley is, blessed with a long and fascinating history, handsome architecture, friendly people and ample good shops. I booked my train ticket months ago, before detailed arrangements had been made, and so I find myself killing time in a coffee shop before my train departs for Hull, and thence to London’s King’s Cross. My suitcase weighs a tonne as a consequence of having purchased a dozen plant books in various charity and second-hand shops, hence I can’t move very far or very fast.

Approaching Beverley station by way of Friar’s Lane I passed a brick wall festooned with one of my favourite wild flowers, the ivy-leaved toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis). This diminutive plant grows in my walls at home, forming a delicate veil of foliage embroidered with tiny lilac flowers from April until October. During mild winters flowering may be continuous, with each bloom resembling a Lilliputian snapdragon. The effect is magical, as if the plant rightly belonged to a miniature world where fairies employed it to hide their tiny front doors from prying eyes.

It is thought that ivy-leaved toadflax arrived in England as a stowaway in a consignment of marble sculptures being transported from Italy to Oxford, perhaps explaining the alternative common names ‘coliseum ivy’, ‘Oxford ivy’ and ‘Oxford weed’. Another story has it that seedlings snuck out of the Chelsea Physic Garden at some point in the 17th Century. Either way, this Southern Europe invader found British weather to its liking and quickly colonised the walls of stately homes and cottage gardens, paying no heed to social barriers.

Despite the plant’s most common name – and it has been anointed with more than a few – the foliage of ivy-leaved toadflax is more maple-like than ivy-shaped to my mind. Meanwhile the Latin name Cymbalaria alludes to the leaves resembling cymbals. Again, quite a stretch of the imagination needed to make that link. What’s for sure is that each apple-green leaf has five rounded lobes, a waxy texture and a fine edge of burgundy-red. The sprawling stems, which can grow to a length of three feet, are also reddish in colour. They possess a special quality which allows the plant to spread and regenerate rapidly. Initially flowering stems are positively phototropic, meaning they move towards the light, but once successfully pollinated they become negatively phototropic. The stems change tack and seek darkness, in doing so pushing fresh seed into a new nook or cranny where it is more likely to gain a foot-hold. It’s a clever piece of plant engineering. As a result it’s not uncommon to find walls completely shrouded in ivy-leaved toadflax. In the garden this is not a problem as any unwanted foliage can quickly be torn away. I let it do its own thing until it becomes too shaggy and then I remove the excess and let it start again.

Each flower is a tiny marvel. Three pronounced lobes are proudly presented beneath a lemon-yellow cleft: in bright sunlight this part may fade to white. Above the cleft two further lobes stick up like a rabbit’s ears, each one finely streaked with purple. A small spur at the back of the flower is a much deeper violet. The flowers are pollinated by bees, some of which nest in walls, so from that point of view it is a useful food source and valuable addition to any wildlife-friendly garden. Less helpfully the dense stems form an invisibility cloak for snails. If you look beneath them you will often find tens of the blighters poised and ready to create havoc after dark.

Ivy-leaved toadflax is not a British native but has been so widely naturalised in the UK for so long as to be an honorary member of our limited flora. If you have walls, ivy-leaved toadflax will generally find you in time, but, should you need an introduction, seeds can be purchased from Chiltern Seeds and other reputable sources. Plant in sun and ivy-leaved toadflax will remain reasonably compact and floriferous; plant in the shade and it will venture further. After that it will continue to arrange itself artfully year after year, rewarding you with a cheery curtain of minuscule flowers from spring until autumn. TFG.

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29 thoughts on “Plant Profile: Ivy-leaved toadflax

  1. Fascinating – so much to say about such a tiny ubiquitous flower. Thank you! By coincidence I was in Beverly for a couple of weeks in February for the first time and I agree with you it’s a lovely place. I normally reside in deepest most southerly Sussex!
    Dawn

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  2. What a wealth of knowledge you have at your fingertips. You will remind me to look at that plant with new eyes. I too love Beverley. I was lucky to be a Godmother at the Minster, and also a guest at my Godsons sister’s wedding more recently. The most spectacular building that so few people seem to be aware. Thanks for sharing.

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  3. My ivy leaf toadflax, has crept into the brick walls of my greenhouse. I thought today how gorgeous it looked, creeping through a watering can handle. I too took some images, but no blog. I really enjoyed this post, Thankyou Dan !

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  4. Kenilworth Ivy…one of my all-time favourite perennial plants! It flourishes here on the south-west coast of Canada without any interference from me at all;) Your thorough descriptions and lovely photographs are helping me to appreciate this little gem all the more. I’m going out to the garden now, to take a closer look!

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  5. Another interesting and informative article – thank you! l love this little plant and “imported” some into my garden years ago, and it thrives here in Buckinghamshire. As it happens, l was born in Hull, and used to work in Beverley. A wonderful place with the best ice cream (Burgess’s) in the country, if not the world!

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  6. Only you could make, what some people might consider an invasive weed, seem like a sparkling addition to the garden wall. What a pretty little plant.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Ha, now I know what is “invading” my garden, paths, walls, climbing up the trunks of trees. I am in Western Australia and I think it took a free ride with one of the plants I received from my first gardening teacher, and sweet lady of 84 years young. I was a very young woman who had no gardening experience having lived in a concrete jungle of. Eastern Europe but I always had a dream… I always liked this plant as it reminded me of my teacher but at times I have to pull out handfuls of it as it grows over other plants I want to keep… And here in wa it like shade, in full sun it will not grow.

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    1. Hi Barbara. I can imagine that ivy-leaved toadflax would scorch in your summer heat. Even in my garden it seems to prefer shaded walls, which is fine by me. When it gets too much it pulls away so easily that I almost feel guilty about harming it, but it soon grows back.

      These days I doubt any plant gets into Australia by accident, so your little stowaway is fortunate to be with you, providing fond memories. Dan

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  8. Ah, yes. I love this little invader too. It grows all over the granite rocks and walls in my garden and I am very happy to give it house garden room. You have presented it well 😀

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  9. What a wonderful post, thank you! I have never seen this flower this side of the English Channel, but possibly I haven’t paid enough attention. It hasn’t yet found its way into my garden, so I may have to resort to buying those outrageously overpriced seeds. I wonder, might it be happy climbing the trunk of my cherry tree, what do you think? Or might the cherry be unhappy then?

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    1. Hi Katya. Ivy-leaved toadflax might be encouraged to grow in a tree if there were a lot of moisture available and nooks for it to root into. However others have suggested it is not that easy to inveigle into places where it does wish to go. It would definitely not harm your cherry tree though, as it’s not parasitic and unlikely to smother anything as large as a tree.

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      1. Thanks so much! I am thinking perhaps the bark of the cherry tree is too smooth and does not have enough nooks and crannies for it, but I am tempted to try! Good to be reassured the tree will not suffer.

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  10. Great post – transporting those of us with still leafless trees into colour and magic. (Although 2 crocuses, a group of daffodils and 2 tulips have been spotted…) Your knowledge is very much appreciated!

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  11. I found my first plant growing in a tiny crack in the asphalt of an ally behind one of my shops. I was in the process of moving out of that shop to a bigger space and had passed it by several times while packing. As I kept noticing how pretty it was in that dingy ally I took it home.
    In the 30 years since I have had it in all my gardens and many people have begged for a pot of it.
    I make fairy gardens and this always looks so lovely in the tiny gardens..
    Most people do not realize it is also lovely in a salad…tastes a bit like cress and adds a lovely color. I also have also used it with plantain in healing salves to great success. Its a lovely plant and I have enjoyed it very much.

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