Sandy’s Garden ... To Help a Bee or Not to Help a Bee

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

Bees like toadflax.

The showy yellow and orange flowers of toadflax look like the flowers of the snapdragon and are to be found on waste ground, on grasslands, in roadside verges, in hedgerows and in some gardens from June into the Autumn. When one of the larger bees lands on the lower lip of the flower, attracted by the colour, its weight causes the flower to open sufficiently to let the bee push its head in so that its long proboscis … its elongated snout … can reach the flower’s nectar, which is what the bee is looking for. And in the act of sucking up the welcome nectar, some of any pollen on the bee’s furry back is transferred to the flower and some of that flower’s pollen is picked up to be transferred to the next flower the bee visits … which is exactly what the flower wants … to produce seed by cross-pollination. So bee and flower co-exist happily, each serving the purpose of the other.

Understandably, therefore, the website of the Wildlife Trusts offers the following counsel, “To encourage wildlife into your garden, try planting native flower species in your borders to provide a ‘nectar-café’”; and, of course, toadflax in included among the suggested wildflower. And this perennial plant is well suited to British gardens, being native to much of northern Europe … including the United Kingdom … northern Asia, eastern Siberia and western China. It is less common in Scotland than in the more southerly parts of the British Isles, but its long, narrow leaves and prolific yellow and orange flowers … which give rise to another of its local names, ‘eggs and butter’ … held aloft by stems of between one-third of a metre and a full metre tall … say between one and three feet in old money … are by no means uncommon in these parts. Linaria vulgaris … Linaria comes from the Latin word linum meaning ‘flax’ and vulgaris is another Latin word meaning ‘common’ … is most commonly called ‘toadflax’. The reason for the reference to flax is obvious, and ‘toadflax’ possibly because the mouth of the flower is said to resemble the mouth of a toad, although I don’t really buy that, preferring the alternative claim that the flowers actually resemble small toads.

And yes, while most commonly found as a weed, toadflax is sometimes cultivated for its flowers, which, when cut, have a long life as decorative blooms in a vase. It is sometimes favoured as a plant for a child’s garden, the snapdragon-like flowers being good fun to squeeze so that they open and close, ‘biting’ something or ‘talking’ to the child. It will grow happily in almost any type of soil and will thrive in most parts of the British Isles. But wait!

It boasts taproots which grow up to a metre in length … say, 3 feet in old money … and has horizontal roots that can spread underground for several metres from the parent plant and may send up separate shoots to form new plants. Little wonder that, since toadflax has spread to the United States and Canada, probably as seed, the state of Alberta’s Invasive Species Council has this to say of it: “Common toadflax has become a serious problem to rangeland and mountain meadows all over North America. This perennial plant makes seed, but reproduction is primarily by sprouting from its extensive, creeping root system. The ability of this plant to form large colonies allows it to crowd out other vegetation.”

Gardeners, be warned! Once established, Linaria vulgaris is very difficult to eradicate. Its propensity to spread and to take over any area of the garden where it has been planted is complemented by the fact that a new plant will spring from as little as a single centimetre of root left behind in an area from which the gardener has tried to evict it. To help a bee or not to help a bee – that is indeed a tricky question!