Nature News: Yellow Toadflax Thrives in Concrete Wasteland

published July 22 with and in the Portsmouth Herald, the York Weekly, Foster’s Daily and other Seacoast newspapers

Yellow toadflax growing through a crack in the concrete. Sue Pike photo

I was up at a farmers’ market in Lewiston and in the midst of a veritable concrete desert, there, at the juncture of an old concrete building foundation and concrete/asphalt parking lot, was a burst of color, of nature, of growth.  A flower I knew as ‘butter-and-eggs’, also known as yellow toadflax, had made its way through some miniscule crack in the concrete to flower surrounded by desolation.  There was even a wasp slurping some nectar.  A little oasis in the desert! 

My first question was how is this possible? It turns out concrete, and probably almost anything we think of as impervious that we lay down on the ground, has microscopic cracks.  A seed germinating under one of those cracks pushes upwards, seeking the path of least resistance which it finds in those cracks and breaks through.  I forgot that there is actually dirt under all that concrete, evidently enough for the roots to grow, the roots help supply the energy for the plant to break through.  That’s all it needs–some oomph from the roots and then the sunlight on the other side of the concrete.  What kills me is that I struggle to grow certain plants in my garden, yet here the little yellow toadflax flourishes amidst the harshest of conditions.

Butter and eggs…what a great name!!

I have always had a soft spot for yellow toadflax, which is also called butter-and-eggs due to its rich two-toned snapdragon-type flower with a deep orange ‘lip’ (the eggs)  sandwiched between light yellow ‘lips’ (the butter).  Like a snapdragon you can squeeze the flower from the side to make it open its mouth.  Who couldn’t love this?  Unfortunately it is an invasive species-originally introduced from Eurasia that has spread everywhere and can be incredibly difficult to eradicate from your garden due to its tenacious creeping rhizomes, vegetative buds on its roots,  prolific seeds and the ability of root fragments as small as half an inch to grow into a new plant. 

According to Larry W. Mitich’s article ‘Intriguing World of Weeds’ (published in Dec 1991 in The Weed Science Society of America’s publication ‘Weed Technology’) yellow toadflax was 

“introduced to America from Wales, as a garden flower, by Ranstead, a Welsh Quaker who came to Delaware with William Penn… Ranstead shared it with other settlers who were eager to get it for use in a lotion that was unparalleled for insect bites….And before the introduction of screen doors, window screens, and flypaper, yellow toadflax was used to fight the swarms of flies that tormented settlers. The plant was boiled in milk which was set out in saucers to poison flies.…..But the widest use of yellow toadflax was for a dye. For centuries it had been used for a yellow dye in Germany, and immigrants, especially the Mennonites, were delighted to find Ranstead’s herb already established in the New World. Soon they were cultivating it in fields for making dye for their homespun apparel and other items.”  Over time yellow toadflax became naturalized throughout North America and has become a destructive weed in many states.  

Same butter and eggs as before–but note the wasp in the flower to the left-it is slightly more in focus than the first image Sue Pike photo

I am torn, I don’t have any in my garden right now, and know it should be avoided as a relatively aggressive, invasive plant.  On the other hand, while watching that tiny patch of yellow toadflax sprouting from the pavement it was visited by at least 3 wasps and a large number of bees-more than I’ve seen visit some of the flowers in my garden.  Friends who have it in their gardens tell me it is a bee magnet.  Only the larger bees can pollinate it since they need to force their way between those two lips to get at the nectar.  In a time where we are actively planting pollinator gardens because of decreased food sources for pollinating insects should we encourage everything that feeds the bees (and other insects)?  I don’t know what I will do about it if it shows up in my garden, but I do know that it made my day to see that yellow toadflax pushing through the pavement of that desolate parking lot, adding some life and beauty and color to an otherwise monochrome landscape. 

One Reply to “Nature News: Yellow Toadflax Thrives in Concrete Wasteland”

  1. Absolutely fascinating! I have always wondered how the first settlers from Europe could stand the bugs/flies here, esp. those who settled the north shore of MA with its salt marshes, one of the richest breeding ground for insects in the world. Perhaps the greatest invention ever was the screened window, which I’m guessing didn’t happen until the industrial revolution. This column particularly well written and researched! Jim

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