Herb of the Day
Botanical: Linaria vulgaris (MILL.)
Family: N.O. Scrophulariaceae
—Synonyms—Fluellin. Pattens and Clogs. Flaxweed. Ramsted. Snapdragon. Churnstaff. Dragon-bushes. Brideweed. Toad. Yellow Rod. Larkspur Lion’s Mouth. Devils’ Ribbon. Eggs and Collops. Devil’s Head. Pedlar’s Basket. Gallwort. Rabbits. Doggies. Calves’ Snout. Eggs and Bacon. Buttered Haycocks. Monkey Flower.
—Habitat—The genus Linaria, to which it belongs, contains 125 species, native to’ the Northern Hemisphere and South America, seven of which are found in England.
The Toadflax grows wild in most parts of Europe, on dry banks, by the wayside, in meadows by hedge sides, and upon the borders of fields. It is common throughout England and Wales, though less frequent in Ireland. In Scotland, it is found, as a rule, only in the southern counties. Having been introduced into North America, probably originally with grain, it has become there a troublesome weed. It is especially abundant in sandy and gravelly soil and in chalk and limestone districts.
—Description—From a perennial and creeping root, the Toadflax sends up severalslender stems, erect and not much branched, generally between 1 and 2 feet long, bearing numerous leaves, which are very long and narrow in form. Both stems and leaves are glaucous, i.e. of a pale bluish tint of green, and are quite destitute of hairs.
The stems terminate in rather dense spikes of showy yellow flowers, the corolla in general shape like that of the Snapdragon, but with a long spur, and with the lower lip orange. The Toadflax flowers throughout the summer, from late June to October.
The mouth of the flower is completely closed and never opens until a bee forces its entrance. The only visitors are the large bees – the humble-bee, honey-bee, and several wild bees – which are able to open the flower, and whose tongues are long enough to reach the nectar, which is so placed in the spur that only long-lipped insects can reach it. The closing of the swollen lower lip excludes beetles from the spur. When the bee alights on the orange palate, the colour of which is specially designed to attract the desired visitor, acting as a honey-guide, it falls a little, disclosing the interior of the flower, which forms a little cave, on the floor of which are two ridges of orange hairs, a track between them leading straight to the mouth of the long, hollow spur. Above this is the egg-shaped seed-vessel with the stamens. Between the bases of the two longer stamen filaments, nectar trickles down along a groove to the spur, from the base of the ovary where it is secreted. The bee pushes into the flower, its head fitting well into the cavity below the seed-vessel and thrusting its proboscis down the spur, sucks the nectar, its back being meanwhile well coated by the pollen from the stamens, which run along the roof, the stigma being between the short and long stamens. It is reckoned that a humble-bee can easily take the nectar from ten flowers in a minute, each time transferring pollen from a previous flower to the stigma of the one visited, and thus effecting cross-fertilization.
The Toadflax is very prolific. Its fruit is a little rounded, dry capsule, which when ripe, opens at its top by several valves, the many minute seeds being thrown out by the swaying of the stems. The seeds are flattened and lie in the centre of a circular wing, which, tiny as it is, helps to convey the seed some distance from the parent plant.
Sometimes a curiously-shaped Toadflax blossom will be found: instead of only one spur being produced, each of the five petals whose union builds up the toad-like corolla forms one, and the flower becomes of regular, though almost unrecognizable shape. This phenomenon is termed by botanists, ‘peloria,’ i.e. a monster. As a rule it is the terminal flower that is thus symmetrical in structure, but sometimes flowers of this type occur all down the spike.
The name Toadflax originated in the resemblance of the flower to little toads, there being also a resemblance between the mouth of the flower and the wide mouth of a toad. Coles says that the plant was called Toadflax, ‘because Toads will sometimes shelter themselves amongst the branches of it.’
The general resemblance of the plant in early summer to a Flax plant, accounts for the latter part of its name, and also for another of its country names, ‘Flaxweed.’ The Latin name, Linaria, from linum(flax), was given it by Linnaeus, from this likeness to a flax plant before flowering. The mixture of light yellow and orange in the flowers has gained for it the provincial names of ‘Butter and Eggs,’ ‘Eggs and Bacon,’ etc.
- Gerard says:
- ‘Linaria being a kind of Antyrrhinum, hath small, slender, blackish stalks, from which do grow many long, narrow leaves like flax. The floures be yellow with a spurre hanging at the same like unto a Larkesspurre, having a mouth like unto a frog’s mouth, even such as is to be seene in the common Snapdragon; the whole plant so much resembleth Esula minor, that the one is hardly knowne from the other but by this olde verse: “Esula lactescit, sine lacte Linaria crescit.”
- ‘ “Esula with milke doth flow,
- Toadflax without milke doth grow.” ‘
This Esula is one of the smaller spurge, Euphorbia esula, which before flowering so closely resembles Toadflax that care must be taken not to collect it in error, the milky juice contained in its stems (as in all the Spurges) will, however, at once reveal its identity.
The leaves of the Toadflax also contain an acrid, rather disagreeable, but not milkyjuice, which renders them distasteful to cattle, who leave them untouched. Among the many old local names given to this plant we find it called ‘Gallwort,’ on account of its bitterness, one old writer affirming that it received the name because an infusion of the leaves was used ‘against the flowing of the gall in cattell.’ The larvae of several moths feed on the plant, and several beetles are also found on it.
—Part Used Medicinally—Cultivation. For medicinal purposes, Toadflax is generally gathered in the wild condition, but it can be cultivated with ease, though it prefers a dry soil. No manure is needed. Seeds may be sown in spring. All the culture needed is to thin out the seedlings and keep them free of weeds. Propagation may also be carried out by division of roots in the autumn.
The whole herb is gathered just when coming into flower and employed either fresh or dried.
When fresh, Toadflax has a peculiar, heavy, disagreeable odour, which is in great measure dissipated by drying. It has a weakly saline, bitter and slightly acrid taste.
—Constituents—Toadflax abounds in an acrid oil, reputed to be poisonous, but no harm from it has ever been recorded. Little or nothing is known of its toxic principle, but its use in medicine was well known to the ancients.
Its constituents are stated to be two glucosides, Linarin and Pectolinarian, with linarosin, linaracin, antirrhinic, tannic and citric acids, a yellow colouring matter, mucilage and sugar.
—Medicinal Action and Uses—Astringent, hepatic and detergent. It has some powerful qualities as a purgative and diuretic, causing it to be recommended in jaundice, liver, skin diseases and scrofula; an infusion of 1 OZ. to the pint has been found serviceable as an alterative in these cases and in incipient dropsy. The infusion has a bitter and unpleasant taste, occasioned by the presence of the acrid essential oil. It was at one time in great reputation among herb doctors for dropsy. The herb distilled answers the same purpose, as a decoction of both leaves and flowers in removing obstructions of the liver. It is very effectual if a little Peruvian bark or solution of quinine and a little cinnamon be combined with it. Gerard informs us that ‘the decoction openeth the stopping of the liver and spleen, and is singular good against the jaundice which is of long continuance,’ and further states that ‘a decoction of Toadflax taketh away the yellownesse and deformitie of the skinne, being washed and bathed therewith.’
The fresh plant is sometimes applied as a poultice or fomentation to haemorrhoids, and an ointment of the flowers has been employed for the same purpose, and also locally in diseases of the skin. A cooling ointment is made from the fresh plant – the whole herb is chopped and boiled in lard till crisp, then strained. The result is a fine green ointment, a good application for piles, sores, ulcers and skin eruptions.
The juice of the herb, or the distilled water, has been considered a good remedy for inflammation of the eyes, and for cleansing ulcerous sores.
Boiled in milk, the plant is said to yield an excellent fly poison, and it is an old country custom in parts of Sweden to infuse Toadflax flowers in milk, and stand the infusion about where flies are troublesome.
The flowers have been employed in Germany as a yellow dye.