Farmacie Isolde procures useful and unusual seeds from around the world.


Cymbalaria muralis

Considered an invasive species around the world, you should research this plant carefully before introducing it to your garden. It is the experience of Farmacie Isolde that Kenilworth Ivy does not overwinter in zone 5, making it an interesting annual edible for shady spaces in cold winter climates.

This dainty plant thrives in dry shade and features one of the most unique flowers in nature: intially phototropic, this little flower pushes itself into dark nooks and crevices once fertilized, increasing the chances of germination and proliferation. Its leaves are succulent and high in vitamin C. Flavor is variable depending on culture, but is comparable to cress. Best as a novelty edible, or by the handful in the unlikely event of imminent scurvy.

Kenilworth Ivy is easy to grow from seed: press into moist soil and mist; keep warm and moist to germinate within two weeks. Prefers to grow in shade, and is suitable for small containers and rock walls. It grows quickly and has a delightful trailing habit and pretty purple snapdragon-like flowers.

Packet contains around 100 seeds.

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This little flower is very commonly found growing on old walls and bare, waste ground. Its little lilac coloured flowers (8-15 mm across) have two lips, the upper is divided in two and the lower has three lobes with a pale yellow spot to guide in the nectar-seeking bees. Behind the lower lip is a small spur. The flowers are solitary on long, slender, sometimes reddish, stalks at the base of the leaves and bloom from May to September – although often its flowers can be seen in flower all year round. These leaves are ivy-shaped and, like the rest of the plant, hairless. The seed-planting mechanism of this plant is very clever indeed. The flowers turn their heads to the sun until they have been fertilised at which stage they turn about towards the wall on which they are growing and in this way they plant or push the seeds into any little crevice possible on the wall. They also have very long roots which help them to hang on, like the Ivy for which they are named, and thereby ensure their survival. This plant was introduced in the seventeenth century from the Mediterranean countries. It belongs to the family Plantaginaceae.

I first became aware of and identified this little plant growing in the grounds of my school in Donnybrook, Co Dublin sometime in the 1950’s and I photographed it in 2006 at Baginbun Head, Co Wexford.

If you are satisfied you have correctly identified this plant, please submit your sighting to the National Biodiversity Data Centre

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..

Ivy-leaved Toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis)

Of all the things that grow in our cities, I have a soft spot for the ones that make their homes in walls. There’s something about these plants, clinging onto life in such a dry, sun-baked, inhospitable situation that fills me with admiration. On Sunday, I found a whole wall full of Ivy-leaved Toadflax. Tiny plants were growing on the top and then seeding right down to the bottom, like a kind of botanical candle-wax. Once I got home, I started to do some research and discovered, to my delight, that the plant is designed to do just this: when in flower, the blooms turn towards the light, but once the flowers are over, it becomes ‘negatively phototropic’ – in other words, the seed heads bend away from the light, to deposit their seeds into darker places, like cracks or the shadow at the bottom of a wall. When I find out something like this, I want to rush out into the street, stand by a patch of Ivy-leaved Toadflax and tell everybody who passes about what a fascinating plant it is. Fortunately, my blog enables me to do this without being arrested.

On the top of the wall….

…trickling down the wall… the bottom of the wall.

Toadflaxes are a member of the Figwort family, which also includes such plants as Mullein, Foxglove and Antirrhinums. However, the trick to identifying a toadflax is to look at the lower ‘lip’ of the flower – this is called the Palate (because it guards the ‘throat’ of the flower), and is formed of two lobes.

Ivy-leaved Toadflax was brought to the UK from southern Europe in the early seventeenth century, and was said to have originated in the packing material of some statues that were imported from Italy to Oxford, hence its alternative name of ‘Oxford Weed’. It was a very popular addition to the walled gardens that were being built everywhere at this time but, in the way of things, it didn’t take long before it was advancing over the walls of inhabited places all over the country. Other vernacular names include ‘Mother of Thousands’ and ‘Travelling Sailor’, which attest to its colonising zeal. It covered the walls of Kenilworth Castle so vigorously that yet another name for it is ‘Kenilworth Ivy’. There is a lovely description of Ivy-leaved Toadflax in medieval times on the Highbury Wildlife Garden website:

“In Reading the Landscape of Europe, May Theilgaard Watts calls it Runes-de-Rome: “This plant is a part of every medieval city wall’ in France. “Clinging to the massive masonry that lifts Chateaudun above the Loire Valley, it undoubtedly felt the breath of molten lead poured on the enemy from the apertures above and received many a misdirected arrow from below.”

The plant seems to like the scabbiest, most broken-down walls, maybe because these contain the greatest variety of crevices and cracks. Richard Mabey notes that it is ‘virtually unknown in natural habitats in this country’.

In its native Italy, Ivy-leaved Toadflax is known as ‘the plant of the Madonna’. It is also said to be edible: it is described in old herbals as ‘anti-scorbutic’, which means that it is high in vitamin C, and has been eaten in salads. Its flavour is described as being similar to cress. I can imagine that those little flowers would look very pretty too, although taking them would mean depriving the bees of their nectar – like most plants with ‘snapdragon’-shaped flowers, it is insect-pollinated.

Ivy-leaved Toadflax growing alongside the A6 between Matlock and Bath (© Copyright Mick Garratt and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.)

This leaves me with just one question. Why is a Toadflax called a Toadflax? The answer is lost in history, but one explanation is that the flower looks like the wide-mouthed face of a toad. Another is that the flower looks like a whole toad! There is also a theory that toads liked to shelter amongst the leaves, which, as they also like the crevices in drystone walls, seems to me the likeliest of the explanations. At any rate, having noticed Ivy-leaved Toadflax, I am now seeing it everywhere, and will certainly tell you if I spot any toads.

How to Grow Cymbalaria Plants in your Garden

Gardener’s HQ Guide to Growing Ivy Leaved Toadflax, Kenilworth Ivy, and Climbing Sailor

Although Cymbalaria are half hardy perennials these ivies are normally grown as half hardy annuals by gardeners.

They have purple and yellow tubular flowers that bloom in the middle of summer.

Some of the common names for Cymbalaria include Kenilworth Ivy, Ivy leaved toadflax and Coliseum Ivy.

Ivy-leaved Toadflax by Franco Folini; creative commons.

Cymbalaria muralis by Ecología de Comunidades y Conservación.

Cymbalaria Growing and Care Guide

Common Names: Ivy Leaved Toadflax, Kenilworth Ivy, Climbing Sailor, Ivy Lobelia.
Life Cycle: Half hardy perennial usually grown as a half hardy annual by gardeners.
Height: 2 inches (5 cm).
Native: Southern Europe.
Growing Region: Zones 5 to 9.
Flowers: Summer.
Flower Details: White, purple, lilac. Tubular. Snapdragon-like.
Foliage: Herbaceous. Ivy-like. Evergreen. Heart-shaped. Lobed. Glossy.
Sow Outside: Surface. Following last frost. Spacing: 6 inches (15 cm).
Sow Inside: Germination time: two to four weeks in the light. Temperature 60°F (15°C). Ten weeks in advance. Transplant outdoors following the last frost.
Requirements: Full sunlight or light shade. Soil pH 7 to 8. Gritty soil. Moist soil. Occasional feed. Propagate: dividing rootball or cuttings in spring.
Closely Related Species:
Miscellaneous: Before fertilization plants move towards the light; after fertilization plants move away from the light. This enables seed to be dropped in cooler darker places, especially useful to plants when growing in rock wall crevices.

How to grow Kenilworth Ivy and Ivy Leaved Toadflax (Cymbalaria)

If you are planting members of the Cymbalaria genus such as Kenilworth Ivy and Ivy Leaved Toadflax from seed outdoors then they should be sown on the soil surface after the last frost of spring. They like to grow in sunny areas, but benefit greatly from receiving shade in very hot areas. Cymbalaria like to grow in moist soil that has a somewhat alkaline pH. Seedlings of Kenilworth Ivy and other Cymbalaria species can be grown from seed indoors. They should be set off about 10 weeks before you plant them out after the last frost of spring. They normally take about two to four weeks to germinate in the light at a temperature of 15 to 18 degrees Celsius. Once the Cymbalaria seedlings are ready they should be transplanted outside with a spacing of about 15 cm.

Caring for Cymbalaria in the Garden

These ivies take very little looking after; they should be watered regularly, and cut back and dead headed before setting seeds to prevent them from taking over the garden.

Ivy-leaved toadflax Cymbalaria muralis

The little purple snapdragon flowers of the ivy-leaved toadflax are seen scrambling over walls in towns and country, its roots creeping into nooks and crannies in the mortar.

A trailing plant with a reddish tinge to the stem and leaves. The purple flowers are like miniature snapdragons, with a yellow central patch, and the leaves are ivy-shaped.

Where it grows

In walls, pavements, rocky, stony places and even on shingle beaches throughout the British Isles, except northern Scotland, where it is rarely seen.

Best time to see

In flower from April to October.

How’s it doing?

Although not a native species to the UK it is now considered naturalised, having been established here for several hundred years. Its widespread distribution is now stable.

Did you know?

  • It is said to have been originally introduced into England via seeds having been brought in some marble sculptures from Italy to Oxford. It has established itself on the walls of colleges and gardens in Oxford in such abundance as to give it the name “Oxford-weed”.
  • Ivy-leaved toadflax is thought to have been introduced into gardens prior to the 17th century and records from the wild date from 1640. Its small, purple and yellow snapdragons made it very popular as an ornamental plant between the 17th and 19th centuries when many walled gardens were created which it could exploit.
  • The leaves are edible and have a flavour similar to watercress.
  • The Latin name cymbalaria relates to the shape of the leaves, which were thought to resemble cymbals.
  • It has a mechanism which makes it easy for the plant to colonise walls vertically upwards. When in bloom, the flower-stalks bend towards the light, whilst once the flowers are finished, the seed-heads bend the other way, so that seeds are more likely to be shed into cracks in the supporting stones.
  • Other common names include Mother of thousands, Travelling sailor, and Rabbit-flower.

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