My garden, as I’ve said many times, is a 50-by-120-foot suburban lot with the usual house, driveway, garage and paved walks. Among those elements are half a dozen beds or borders containing combinations of shrubs, perennials, and self-sown annuals. There are also small areas of grass (sometimes called “the lawns,” although that sounds rather grand).
The soil is a light sandy loam, with good drainage. The climate is semi-Mediterranean, which means mild wet winters and dry summers. Recent summers have been drier and warmer than normal. Most of the plantings are affected to some extent by four large Norway maples, a big birch and a medium-sized Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima).
In this difficult situation — dry, rooty shade — a few reliable tough plants perform quite well, because they are tough and almost weedy. Properly managed, they can be quite ornamental. I plan to write several posts this summer about how I use these plants in my garden.
First up is Purple Toadflax (Linaria purpurea). Apparently, the leaves resemble those of the flax plant, which explains the “flax” part of the common name and the “lin” (linum is Latin for “flax”) in the genus name. I’m not sure where the toad comes in.
The plant grows between 1 and 3 feet (30 cm to 1 metre) tall. In shade, it can reach 4 feet. It’s somewhat slender, so inserts itself easily among other plants without crowding. Most plants have between 4 and 10 stems. The stems are stiff and never need staking.
The individual flowers are like tiny snapdragons. They cluster in spiky racemes at the tops of the stems. The standard colour is medium to dark purple. I’ve had a few plants whose flowers are purple and white, but they’re rare. Pink flowers are more common than the bicolours. They’re a fairly pale pink, though; their main interest comes from being different from the norm. The standard purple is a fine colour, contrasting well with the grey-blue-green of the slender leaves.
Purple toadflax is of no interest to deer. It grows well and blooms reliably in dry, rooty soil and shade. It thrives in sunny spots. Bumblebees love it.
What’s not to like? Well, I did say it’s a quasi-weed. Left to its own devices, it blooms in May and June. The flowers are succeeded by seed pods that look like tiny green beads. At this point flowering stops. Seeds ripen by summer’s end and scatter when the plants are disturbed. The following spring hundreds of seedlings emerge, producing more toadflaxes than anyone wants. An untended patch of toadflax is reminiscent of gravel parking lots, not garden borders.
Rigorous deadheading is the way to curb the plant’s weedy tendencies. Clip off the spikes of bead-like seed pods as soon as they form. You can either cut each thin side-stem or wait until the whole raceme has pretty much finished flowering and cut the main stem just beneath the flower cluster. The plant will put out new flowering side-stems and keep blooming all summer. A bonus of this process is that the foliage of plants growing in sunny spots turns interesting shades of pink in autumn.
The trick is to deadhead before the seeds ripen. Inevitably, a few plants escape my notice. I discover them when I’m doing fall cleanup, by which time the tiny seeds scatter far and wide. A desperation measure for this situation is to carefully clip the seed-bearing top of each stem and transfer it into a pail or similar container, preventing seed scatter. I suspect semi-ripened seeds are able to finish maturing in the compost pile, so it’s best not to compost them unless you’re sure your heap achieves temperatures high enough to kill seeds. Mine doesn’t.
This is why I know how well toadflax blends into plantings. I don’t remember ever actually planting it. I go through the beds in spring and remove excessive seedlings and badly-positioned plants.
Toadflax is a short-lived perennial. Individual plants persist for two or three seasons. Eventually, they get woody at the base and perform poorly. By that time, though, there are more than enough young plants to replace them.
I wouldn’t recommend purple toadflax for mass plantings. The skinny, diagonally placed leaves produce a visually tedious herringbone tweed effect. Besides, this mass planting effect is what you get when you let toadflax self-sow with abandon. I like them best among other plants with contrasting leaf shapes.
More info about Purple Toadflax is available at the Missouri Botanical Garden site and Wikipedia.