Neither a Toad, Nor Flax

Texas toadflax  ~  Nuttallanthus texanus

I first met Texas toadflax on March 23 of last year, while photographing spring wildflowers in a New Berlin, Texas cemetery.

When I discovered a group of the flowers beginning to bloom on Galveston Island’s west end a few days ago, on February 9, I thought our mild winter might have encouraged an early bloom. In fact, various sources indicate they’re right on schedule; in our area, their flowering begins in February and continues through May. Texas toadflax is one of three species of native North American toadflax; the bloom times of N. canadensis and N. floridanus vary somewhat.

The plant’s flowers, ranging from light lavender to light blue, are accompanied by a slender, downward-curved spur approximately 5-10 mm in length: longer than the flower’s  calyx. The nectar-filled spur attracts bees, flies, butterflies, and moths; the caterpillar of the common buckeye butterfly feeds on the leaves.

Toadflax, of course, is an odd and interesting name. In her book Nature’s Garden, published in 1900, Neltje Blanchan explains it this way while writing about Linaria canadensis, or blue toadflax, known today as Nuttallanthus canadensis:

Wolf, rat, mouse, sow, cow, cat, snake, dragon, dog, toad are among the many animal prefixes to the names of flowers that the English country people have given for various and often most interesting reasons.
Just as dog, used as a prefix, expresses an idea of worthlessness to them, so toad suggests a spurious plant; the toadflax being made to bear what is meant to be an odious name because, before flowering, it resembles the true flax, linum, from which the generic title is derived. 

Given the changes in customs and classifications over the years, Blanchan’s explanations can seem quaint or puzzling. What seems certain is that toads don’t lounge beneath the plant, and it never has provided fiber. It just blooms, reminding us that spring’s not as far away as we’ve imagined.


Comments always are welcome.

68 thoughts on “Neither a Toad, Nor Flax

  1. I am sure that the etymology of plants would be a fascinating study unto itself. Whatever the origin of the name it is a beautiful flower and to have it bloom in February is a bonus.

    1. Yesterday, only a week after finding this, I was astonished by the profusion of additional species that had begun appearing. It’s going to be prime wildflower viewing time sooner rather than later, and I need to begin paying attention, and planning. Last year, I was a little late at the end of March, and I suspect that early or mid-March may be a good time to do a bit of roaming.

  2. We have toadflax in Minnesota, but ours is a yellow, orange, and white variety. The blossoms resemble and, when gently squeezed, behave very similarly to snapdragons. The common name is, perhaps to some, not all that attractive, unless one finds oneself attracted to the delicate charms of the toad. I confess to being one who does.

    1. I suspect your toadflax is the yellow variety that Blanchan wrote about, comparing it to another interestingly-named plant — ‘butter and eggs’ — and noting the snapdragon resemblance. It seems there are two introduced species in your area. One, Linaria vulgaris, is sometimes called wild snapdragon. Unfortunately the other, Linaria dalmatica, or Dalmatian toadflax, doesn’t have a very good reputation with your state officials. To wit:

      ” Likely originally introduced into North America by gardeners, it is now a highly problematic invasive species throughout the arid western US, spreading aggressively by both seeds and robust underground root stalks. While it should be controlled as soon as possible wherever and whenever it is found, the waxy cuticle makes it highly resistant to chemical control and its deep underground roots make hand pulling nearly worthless…”

      “The Minnesota Dept. of Agriculture (MDA) is targeting this species, among others, and would like to take quick action against it. See the MDA Dalmatian Toadflax fact sheet for more information. If you think you see this plant somewhere in MN please either contact the MDA or post a comment below. Thank you for helping to stop this pest in its tracks!”

      I’m so glad our toadflax is a native!

      1. Duly noted, Linda, and I was aware of the invasiveness, thought I didn’t mention it in my comment. If/when I see it, I will continue to note its appearance and report it to our Dept of Ag.

        1. Had I not found our native, I never would have discovered your non-native. I’m always a little surprised by how attractive some of the invasives like this toadflax are, and of course that very attractiveness is one reason they’ve been brought here — along with practical applications like natural fencing for pastures and such.

    1. Snapdragons are a common feature of public landscaping here, and yet I never saw a resemblance between this plant and the snapdragons. On the other hand, when I saw the photos of the yellow toadflaxes, I could see it. I finally figured out that this toadflax and those toadflaxes are different genera. Do you grow Linaria vulgaris in your gardens?

  3. I grew the yellow toadflax once, but then found out its habit to take over a space and it was removed. This gorgeous blue one wouldn’t have met that fate.
    While the weather here shows little signs of summer ending, the dawn is noticeably later coming on. I’m guessing you may have needed some contortions to photograph this?

    1. It’s been interesting to learn about the various plants known as toadflax. Two of the yellow varieties, Linaria vulgaris and L. Dalmatica aren’t native here, but knowing about them helped to make sense of Blanchan’s comment. From what I read, they are “enthusiastic in their growth habits,” as one writer put it, and your experience confirms that.

      I wouldn’t say contortions were needed, precisely. On the other hand, these had appeared in a recently mowed spot, so they were only about six inches tall. In situations like that, once I’m down on the ground I often turn the camera and shoot in portrait mode. It suits the subject matter, and isn’t nearly so awkward.

    1. The two flowers were almost on the same plane, but not quite, and the half-inch difference between them made getting both in focus an interesting exercise. It was quite windy, too, so I was happy to have managed this image. The blue is beautiful. The ones I photographed last year tended toward a light lavender, and they were equally pretty.

    1. When I read that paragraph, I thought about dogwoods, along with dogbane (does it really deter dogs?) and the dogtooth violet. Here’s an interesting, short piece about other plants that somehow involve dogs. I was surprised to learn that one of my favorite plants, that I call blue star (Amsonia tabernaemontana), also is known as blue dogbane.

    1. I just love Blanchan’s book, and need to quote from it more often. Her primary interest was the relationship between insects and flowers, and it really is a fascinating read. I was lucky enough to find an original copy of the book, and the color plates and line drawings are fun, too. Since it’s from more than a century ago, there have been a lot of name changes, and many of her examples are drawn from European traditions, but that’s not necessarily a negative. The history’s as interesting as the descriptions of the flowers.

      Toadflax is a beautiful flower. It’s fun to see a larger patch, where there can be several shades of lavender-blue all together.

      1. I imagine that a large patch of toadflax would be a really lovely sight. Blanchan’s book sounds very interesting.

        1. Blanchan’s book is one that’s fun to read, even when I’m not looking for a particular flower. She clearly was in love with wildflowers and insects, and was quite the apologist for pollinator gardening. I looked on the Amazon UK site and found it there. I wouldn’t want the Kindle version myself, but it looks like there are various formats available.

          1. Thanks for the link! I actually went for the Kindle book because these days I have to think very carefully about the space I need for my books. ( I love the way Kindle lets me buy more! And read more, of course. )

            1. When it comes to books, space is an issue. I’m glad you went with the Kindle version, and I hope you’ll enjoy it. It can be a little “iffy” to recommend books to people, but I’m pretty sure it will appeal to you.

    1. What’s so intriguing about most of those unusual names is that they often have a history behind them. Sometimes they describe a plant’s appearance (bluebonnet, Indian paintbrush) and sometimes they describe –uh — other characteristics (corpse flower) but they’re always interesting.

    1. I’ll watch for them, and see if I can get some seed for you. A friend knows where’s there’s a vacant lot that’s filled with a variety of wildflowers, and she thinks toadflax might be one. It self-seeds, so if you can get it started, you ought to be able to enjoy it in future years.

  4. The word ‘toadflax’ sounds and feels awkward to me, but the flower? Nothing but graceful. Great shots and thanks for the toadflax lesson.

  5. Sorry, but I find this an ugly name for such a pretty plant! The color is so delicate, and seeing it in bloom in February makes me happy to know Spring is coming!

    1. I don’t mind the name: probably because I think toads are cute. They’re not quite as cute as frogs, , but they’re right up there. I remembered another strange name this afternoon: ‘snake cotton.’ It’s a cool plant, and the cotton part is pretty obvious, but I have no idea why ‘snake’ got added to the name. It’s another one to figure out.

      I thought about you when I was roaming this weekend. Since last Sunday, several species I’d not noticed before were blooming, and some already had set seed. Even our native Texas dandelions are showing up. I didn’t need a jacket today, but we’re heading back to the 40s and 50s mid-week. Even though we don’t get harsh conditions, everyone’s ready for the back-and-forth swings to stop.

  6. The first time I encountered Texas toadflax was in east Austin, but you won’t be surprised to hear that I’ve photographed flowers of that species in the New Berlin cemetery, too, and in at least two years. It’s good to hear you’ll get an earlier start roaming this year; now if only last spring’s bounty south of San Antonio repeats itself, or moves to another convenient location.

    1. From what I saw this afternoon, it really is time to begin paying attention. The Indian paintbrush are more than occasional in Brazoria County, especially around Lake Jackson. I hadn’t seen any ten-petal anemone, but now they’re everywhere, and a lot of them are going to seed. Other sightings this weekend included blue flags, spider lily, one (!) Silphium radula, seaside goldenrod, Texas dandelion, spiderwort, bluets, buttercups, pink and yellow oxalis — my goodness! Here’s hoping the conditions that are jump-starting all of these will produce a similar bounty once things really get going.

      Oh — and the Texas tauschia I was afraid had been destroyed by all the mowing and paving and other construction at the Dudney Nature Center is still there. Now that I have some photos, I can write the article I’ve had in mind for the NPSoT newsletter.

    1. At this point, even those of us here in the ‘green land’ can use all the reminders we can get. I do enjoy this flower, and I’m glad you did. The color’s lovely, as is its delicacy.

  7. Beautiful and dainty blue. Marvelous photo. I have often wondered how the names of plants were selected. Some are amusing and some just plain odd. But sometimes the odd names used to help me remember the common names of many plants. This one for sure should stick in my memory .

    1. That’s really true — the odd names seem to stick more firmly. I suspect it’s because they describe odd features that are more noticeable. Sometimes I’ll find that even the names of plants I’ve known for years can escape me. I can describe them in detail, but just can’t call up the name. When I found peppervine developing last weekend, I couldn’t for the life of me remember its name, but I could enter “native Texas vine pink red black berries” into our friend Google, and there it was: the first entry. Now it will stick — at least until next spring!

    1. These were the fullest flowers I could find; most still were developing buds, and had only a hint of lavender showing. They become quite tall, and have multiple flowers on each stalk. I’ve been told they have a light fragrance, too, but I’ve never found a colony large enough to test that out.

    1. If you ever happen upon Blanchan’s book, I suspect you’d enjoy it greatly. At first, I thought her writing a bit florid. Then, I realized she simply indulges in the old-fashioned pleasure of compound sentences. It can slow the reader down a bit, but she certainly packs a lot of detail into a small space, and does it in a pleasing way.

        1. I did enjoy that. A lot. And when I got to the paragraph about texting, I laughed. Today, of course, we have that new scourge called emojis. Our national weather service office provided a forecast this morning made up primarily of rain clouds, umbrellas, and an overly cheerful sun. I’ll stick with words, TYVM.

  8. Yeah, I’m worried I’m going to miss the season as well. Things seem to be moving along quickly. The zoo had a profusion of azaleas blooming. No toadflax around SW Montgomery county yet but I’m looking.

    1. I heard that Bayou Bend’s azaleas are in bloom, too. I hope this cool weather keeps them blooming until the Azalea Trail (March 6). It surely was fun to see the Texas dandelions and anemones last weekend. It’s like having old friends suddenly show up on the doorstep.

  9. Indeed a strange name, Linda. I appreciated your digging up the 1900 reason for it. I, for one, like toads. They eat mosquitoes and other insects. In Liberia, they loved bug-a-bug. –Curt

    1. Odd that I don’t remember toads in Liberia. I may have heard them, and thought they were frogs. Of course, most of the bug-a-bugs I met already had been roasted, so the toads may have given up and gone elsewhere.

      1. I’ll never forget the night we left our light on Linda, after the first rainstorm of the season, to discover all of the neighborhood dogs, Rasputin our cat and umpteen toads scarfing down termites. If ever there was a peaceable kingdom…

          1. I’m pretty sure you are right. :) You may recall that the next morning my students showed up with cans of the squirming insects and popping them into their mouths. –Curt

    1. The only other flower I’ve heard old-field applied to is our old-field aster. It took me forever to figure that one out, because the person who gave me the name called it oil-field aster. Around here, that made perfect sense, I looked at a short article about your toadflax, and they mentioned the resemblance to lobelia that I’d noticed, too.

      I’m happy you like the photo. This was a case where taking plenty of time to think-adjust-shoot-think-adjust-shoot really paid off. I wish the spur on the left had been more in focus, but sometimes you can’t have everything.

    1. If those flowers were clothing, that’s exactly what they’d be. I always enjoyed halter dresses and sundresses. I suppose they might still be in style, but I can’t remember the last time I saw one. That cool blue would do nicely for a summertime dress, though, and it certainly makes for a pretty flower.

    1. I’m not the biggest fan of blue, but I think this one’s lovely. For one thing, the flowers have a little pattern to them as well as the nice color, and there can be some variety in color. They don’t shout “Look at me!” but once they’re noticed, they reward attention.

  10. Your toadflax is quite different in color than ours although the flower shape is somewhat similar. The local one here is colloquially called a few things but Butter and Eggs is my favorite. Linaria vulgaris is also known as Yellow Toadflax and Common Toadflax. Yours reminds me more of a violet and ours a snapdragon. I am quite envious of your early blooming. Take a week off when the season really starts going.

    1. This is another interesting case of the same common name being applied to different genera, and of one ‘toadflax’ being native (ours) while another is introduced and in some cases invasive. I looked at the GoBotany page, and it seems that your toadflax isn’t the problem in your area that it is in the midwest and west. We don’t have any butter and eggs, but our ‘scrambled eggs’ belongs to yet another genus: Corydalis curvisiliqua.

      If the weather doesn’t straighten out, I’m not going to be going anywhere until August — it’s going to take me that long to get caught up at work. Funny how those inverse proportions work; the more the water flows, the less cash flow there is.

      1. No, ours is not invasive or a problem in any way growing mostly by roadsides. It’s a pretty little flower that lives up to it common name.
        I hope your weather improves so you will be able catch up on your work and, of course, to be out gathering more images of the early blooms. Those of us here in the northeast have a few months to go.

        1. I made good use of today’s dreadful weather; I took Princess in for her 100K mile service. Now, with everything from the transmission to the brakes to the engine flushed, oiled, adjusted, and cleaned, she’s good for another 100K miles. Would that keeping ourselves up were so easy!

  11. It’s a beautiful flower, nothing toad-like about it. Seems a shame that toads carry such negative connotations. I suppose this is simply because some people think they are ugly. On second thought, I’m not sure Blanchan’s theory holds water – how would she explain the Toad Lily?

    1. I looked in her book, and there wasn’t any mention of toad lilies, but she might not have known them. And of course they’re not native to the U.S., as most of the plants in her book seem to be. I’d never heard of them myself, but once I got a look at them, the ‘toad lily’ name made perfect sense, since they’re spotted, and like to hang out around water.

      She did write about the trout lily, which got its name from markings that resemble those on a brook trout. I was amused to read that another name for the trout lily is ‘dogtooth violet,’ since its underground bulb resembles a dog’s tooth.

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