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.