Clockwise, Common Toadflax, Common Toadflax, Ivy Leaved Toadflax, Purple Toadflax, the white form of Ivy Leaved Toadflax growing on the walls of St David’s Cathedral in Pembrokeshire.
Lovely word – “Palimpsest”, but not so lovely when you’re trying to type it into your mobile on a crowded train with no air conditioning and whilst being distracted by the sheer strangeness of your neighbours. We were coming back from Salisbury after a boozy lunch with friends, Madame was snoring gently beside me and I was gazing out of the window enjoying the hallucinogenic feeling of passing through fields and cuttings at 70 miles an hour. Opposite were a couple of very young women curled up together on the seat with their arms around one another in a kind of blissful sleep. Trains are more often very restless places these days. Mobile phones and laptops were playing their part in protecting people from relaxing and enjoying the experience, but I had just one word to type before it fled my memory altogether.
More often than not, for me, a potential post is just a formless and disorganized cloud of ideas until a single word or thought provides the catalyst which crystallizes the whole piece into (I hope) some kind of order. And so, in no particular order there were dozens of Purple Toadflax plants flowering in the back lane to the allotments. The walls around here are always covered with Ivy Leaved Toadflax and I’ve had a rather distressing difficulty in remembering the English name of plain old Toadflax because my mother usually called it “Bacon and Eggs” and I associated it with Snapdragons – from which there was no way back to its proper name.
English plant names are a delight and a minefield because so many of them are local or regional and all too often entirely different plants have the same English names. Small wonder that most botanists prefer the laser precision of Latin binomials to the poetics of local names. Linaria vulgaris is what it is and no other plant, relative, offspring or imposter will be allowed to claim the throne unless the DNA matches. Nonetheless, the evocative English names draw me in. “Why Toad?” “Why Flax?” – I wonder as I stroke their leaves and drink in their intense colour and faint perfume.
It’s not hard to see that these old names are evocative; suggesting ancient uses in healing such as Pilewort or brewing with Mugwort, or perhaps warning of danger – for instance, Fools’ Parsley – or descriptive like Jack go to bed at noon, whose flowers close up at mid day; Cuckoo pint (Cuckoo’s pintle) with its bawdy references to cuckoldry; Pissabed (Dandelion) which had always been used as a diuretic. I could go on almost forever but the best collection of these old country names is undoubtedly Geoffrey Grigson’s “An Englishman’s Flora” which you’ll probably find for 50p at an Oxfam shop somewhere near you.
However some country names come loaded with so many wonderful associations that metaphor hardly fits the bill, and these Toadflaxes are better explained by the rather academic word – palimpsest – which sounds much more obscure than it really is. Here’s an example from Bath; the so-called ghost sign. When we were students here, there was a cafe called “Hands” in the Abbey courtyard. They’d never painted out the old sign for “Hands Dairy” which is still there today and neither have any of the succession of tenants since the cafe closed down and any number of different businesses took it on. A palimpsest is just the academic word for something which has been overwritten by something newer. Across history, writing materials were expensive and hard to come by, so recycling was the norm. The Romans re-used the little tiles used for sending messages, for instance. Scholars of ancient texts often have to read through several layers to try to separate the wood from the trees.
Some plant names like Toadflax are exactly like that. I’ll adapt the term palimpsest to emphasise the haunting thought that far from being a simple metaphor, behind the vernacular name there is a whole hidden history; a cloud of references to another way of life, to skills now almost extinct and an industry that even used its low grade waste to clothe slaves.
So firstly, why Toad? Well, for once we know exactly how and when the term entered the English language because it came by means of William Turner in 1548 when he translated the German name into Todes Flax. It’s all in Geoffrey Grigson’s book by the way. Its principal crime was to closely resemble the flax used for producing linen cloth (until it flowered). It’s also an invasive weed that, like bindweed, will grow from any stub or fragment of rhizome and was once a persistent weed of commercial Flax fields. So that’s the flax part explained, but why “Toad” or “Todes”? Well there’s a thought that the snapdragon shape of the flowers which gape wide when squeezed, somehow resemble the gape of the toad’s wide mouth.
But etymology is only a part of the fun, because beyond the name lies the industry. Fully grown flax was not cut but uprooted and dried. The seeds were removed by a process called rippling and then the plants were retted in water so that the woody layers were separated from the fibres. Trust me, this will have been a very smelly process indeed because it relied upon bacteria or fungi to do the rotting. The rest of the process is best described by quoting from the New England Flax and Linen website.
After retting, the straw is then put through three different mechanical processes. The first is called braking or breaking, where the bundles of flax are crushed and the woody material is broken up. The second is scutching or swingling, where the fibers are vigorously whacked with a wooden blade to remove the remaining woody material. Finally, the fiber is hetcheled or hackled by drawing the fibers through a set of sharp tines. The shorter fibers are removed, the thin strands of fibers are separated, and the fibers are aligned lengthwise. The shorter fibers are known as tow, and the long fibers are called line. At this point the fiber is ready to spin into thread and subsequently woven into cloth.
Braking, scutching, swingling, hetcheling and hackling; tow and line – these are wonderful lost words, lost procedures and lost skills from the flax weaving industry. They evoke the stink and noise of so many pre-industrial processes so let’s not get too whimsical about the pristine rural life. Trust me, you wouldn’t want to live next door to a tannery or a dye works.
There are many plants still growing wild in the UK that are the sole remnants of once common processes and industries and whenever we stumble across them they contain a powerful sense of history. Woad and Weld, Dyers Greenweed and Madder are as evocative to me as any Cornish winding engine or pithead. Plants and their uses are the faint traces of a whole culture and we would do ourselves no favours if we reduced them all to Latin. There’s very little difference in biodiversity between so-called brownfield and greenfield sites whatever the developers may claim. Of the Toadflaxes there are (according to the Book of Stace) eight wild species and fifteen garden escapes, the Ivy Leaved Toadflax belongs to a different family – Cymbalaria – and of all those, only one was economically important; the blue flowered Linum usitatissimum which provides both flax for weaving and also linseed oil when the seeds are pressed. As the Latin name suggests – it’s the useful one.
The dye plant Weld, growing in a wildflower mix on the riverbank in Bath in 2019.