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Linaria - Lucky Charms

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Linaria 017-230x153Since ancient times Linaria, the ‘Baby Snap dragon’ has been picked, carried and worn as an amulet to ward off evil and break hexes. Linaria vulgaris, the Yellow Toadflax, originally thought to be a native to Morocco.

Linaria vulgaris, the Yellow Toadflax has the strongest powers but there are 125 more annual and herbaceous perennial species.

These have naturalised widely throughout much of Asia, Europe and the United Kingdom, Northern Africa and North America. A predominance of species blankets the countryside, fields and road verges throughout the Mediterranean region.

Each has a very special charm and Linaria make lovely additions to the cottage garden, borders and pathways, baskets, container gardens or window box, rockery, wildflower meadow or patch and are most rewarding when allowed to seed and spread amongst bulbs, herbaceous groundcovers, perennials, and within the open shrub and tree border. Linaria are very attractive to Bees, Butterflies and Hummingbirds!

Commonly called Toadflax, the name is believed to come from the fact that: the small 1-2cm/1/4-3/4 inch flowers resemble small toads; the flower lip resembles the shape of a toads’ wide mouth; and because toads frequently lie in wait amongst their wiry stems to catch insects that are attracted by the flowers and their nectar; and because the vegetative growth and habit of Linaria closely resembles that of Linum, the true European Flax. Their botanical name ‘Linaria’ is the original Latin derivative for the word ‘Flax or flax-like’.

Linaria Toadflax, the wild species have been a favourite garden hardy annual and perennial since antiquity. Linaria vulgaris, commonly known as Butter and Eggs, Common Toadflax or Yellow Toadflax, is a very hardy perennial species that spreads from seed as well as a robust spreading root stock. It appears to be native or to have naturalised throughout most of Europe and the United Kingdom, Spain and much of the Mediterranean Region, through temperate Siberia and China as well as temperate North America from Canada down through the prairies into the mountains of Mexico.

Linaria vulgaris, the Yellow Toadflax wildflower almost always sports a combination of yellow shading: butter, cream to golden yellow flowers sometimes with a deeper golden to orange spot on each flower lip. Flowers are arranged rather closely up strong, wiry stems above long, fine and thin grey green to medium green Flax-like foliage. Flowers closely resemble those of the Antirrhinum (Snapdragon) which is a close relative.

They are also closely related to scrambling and vining Cymbalaria (Ivy-Leafed Toadflax) and Nuttallanthus (Canadian Toadflax). Plants usually reach 12-18inches (30-45cm) and flower in Spring through early Summer occasionally into Autumn. Yellow Toadflax is a spreading and robust perennial species that can become invasive and thrives along road margins, railroad tracks, dry and gravelly hillsides and slopes and other poorer waste lands.

Canadian Toadflax, Nuttallanthus Canadensis syn. Linaria purpurea is a taller soft perennial or hardy (bi) annual species. This species can grow to 1-1.2m/3-4ft but usually remains 30-70cm/1-2.3ft and looks very similar but the leaves are a deeper green sometimes with a blue-purple cast and/or a grey/whitish bloom. Plants are much more branching and robust.

Flower spikes rise taller but are more airy and graceful with smaller individual blooms (1-2cm.) in a similar shape. Usually flowers are purple to red purple but lovely pastel lavender, pink and white cultivars are often seen. Plants usually spread from seed rather than root stock and are not invasive. They can flower later in the season the first year from seed and will often winter-over in milder climates and put on a much more spectacular show the following Spring into Summer.

In mild climates and sheltered positions they can flower nearly year round. But often after a year or more they usually flower themselves to death and produce profuse seed to start another generation.

Linaria marocca, the Annual Linaria, Baby Spurred Snapdragon or Moroccan Toadflax is a classic favourite annual species grown since antiquity that has been spectacularly advanced through repeated hybridization from the original Moroccan and Mediterranean wildflowers. The introduction of the compact and dwarf vividly coloured ‘Fairy Bouquet’, ‘Fairy Mix’, ‘Fantasy Mix’ ‘Enchantment’ and similar fast growing annual species has occurred mostly within the past hundred years.

These are dwarf plants usually reaching 12-18in/30-14cm or less. In some situations the plants produce a single very thin flowering stem but can easily produce multiple stems that at their prime can create rounded small mounds of vivid baby snapdragon flowers.

Flowers closely resemble blousy miniature snapdragons in a rainbow of shades. Most often flower colours include: cream, carmine, lavender, mauve, purple, red, salmon, orange, yellow, violet, white and a huge variety of bi and tri-coloured flowers often with a contrasting shade to the lip of each bloom. These are ideal plants for containers and window boxes where their exquisite colours and patterns can be closely examined.

They are also ideally suited to borders and pathways, cottage gardens and wildflower areas as they attract bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. This makes annual Linaria marocca an ideal and fast-growing plant for a child’s garden, guaranteed to captivate young minds and the young-at-heart.

All Linarias and especially the more colourful annual and perennial species and varieties make excellent and long-lasting cut flowers. They are occasionally grown commercially for the Florist Trade. Flowers are usually cut as the first few blooms open on each stem. Flowers will continue to open up the stem for a week or more. If the flowers remain in bright indirect light and stems are recut and the water is changed regularly, they will continue to flower “travelling” up the stem sometimes for several weeks as a cut flower.

Linaria definitely prefer limy soils. But they will grow in a variety of soil pH from 5.5-8.2. Soil can be enriched or poor but the key to success is that it must be light and very well draining. Sandy land and gravel suit them well. Linaria often grows wild along roadways, gravel railway embankments, on hillsides and gravely or sandy slopes and many sorts of marginal or very poor soil waste lands.

They thrive in sunny sites and will also tolerate drier positions in partly shaded. Linaria are good on the coast or airy, even windy spots. Their requirement of perfect drainage and sunny aspects makes them a perfect specimen for containers, baskets and window boxes.

The seed of Linaria is very fine. While the perennial species like Linaria purpurea and occasionally young L. Vulgaris can be successfully transplanted while young. They are almost always best sown direct where the plants are meant to grow. Alternatively, sow very lightly into small punnets or containers. Later on as the seedlings advance, watch their development and as soon as their roots fill the container or punnet and just begin to protrude through the drainage holes, transplant them into their permanent flowering location.

The secret is to transplant them as one intact root ball soil unit with no disturbance of their very delicate roots. Always transplant into moist soil and once transplanted, water them in immediately and they should rocket away.

When sowing the seed directly where it is meant to grow, many Gardeners mix the very fine seed with sand or compost and then broadcast this mix very thinly where the plants are to flower. This usually provides enough spacing between seedlings so that little if any thinning-out is necessary.

Lightly cover the seed bed with a little more compost, sand or light mulch; or rake in the broadcast seed and keep the bed lightly moist. Germination is rapid. Seedlings can later be thinned so the plants are not overcrowded or shaded by nearby growth. Thinnings can be successfully transplanted on damp, cloudy days. But these plants will always be a bit inferior to those that have grown their entire life without transplanting shock.

Another secret for creating the most successful Linaria bed displays is thorough weeding. It is usually best to prepare the planting site well in advance; adding compost, lime and possibly a balanced general garden fertiliser and digging it in. Water this in and then let the bed settle. Allow whatever weed seed there is in the bed to germinate, then rake or weed this out, once or twice prior to broadcasting the Linaria seed.

Raking or slicing through the topsoil and weeds on a dry, sunny and windy day will cause the weed seedlings to almost immediately shrivel and return back to the soil as a ‘green manure’ and eliminates the back-breaking effort of hand-weeding.

This eliminates almost all weeds that might otherwise crowd-out or overshadow the delicate and small Linaria seedlings. Otherwise, it is often very difficult to successfully traditionally weed amongst tiny Linaria seedlings because they are so fine, small and shallow-rooted. Pulling out any nearby weeds almost surely will damage a number of nearby Linaria seedlings which will later-on limit their ultimate performance.

Annual Linaria marocca can be sown almost any time. But seed germinates best when the soil is warm between 18-20C/65-68C degrees and usually will not germinate when temperatures are below 10C/50F. The plants also flower better and for much longer when days remain cool 68-72F/20-22C. They still flower and grow very successfully in warmer conditions but are somewhat more spindly and finish flowering faster.

Traditionally the finest displays for both annual and perennial species are produced from Late Summer and Autumn plantings and sowings in climates with very mild and nearly frost-free Winters. These sowings produce very robust and stocky plants that can withstand mild frosts and will begin flowering in Winter and Early Spring onward. In colder climates, Spring is the best time to sow for Summer flowering. These also make a lovely show wherever Summer temperatures remain cool to moderate, especially wherever evening temperatures fall to comfortable levels.

In climates with cool summer nights seed can be sown through Summer for late season blooms. Planting or sowing in Mid Spring will usually produce a splash of quick colour around the holiday season (Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere and Fourth of July in the USA).

Once the first flush of flowers fade on either annual or perennial-flowering Linarias, shear them back from just below the flowering stems right after flowering so that they cannot go to seed. With any luck the plants will flower again on many more shorter stems. The perennial species, especially Canadian Linaria purpurea can be cut back repeatedly to stimulate additional blooms. After the first flower head is removed, numerous smaller heads will quickly branch out and flower. Once these finish, remove that entire cane to just above the basal crown and more strong shoots should soon spring into growth.

Linarias have a long history in medicinal folk medicine. They are often steeped to make a bitter tea which is antiseptic, antibiotic and often used as a laxative and diuretic. In Medieval times it was administered to treat jaundice, dropsy, enteritis and is scientifically proved to reduce fevers. In Europe, especially Scandinavia, Linaria is often steeped in hot water and the ensuing tea is then mixed with milk which is used as an insecticide, most especially to eradicate flies.

Linarias are adaptable to a variety of growing locations, they are attractive not only to us but also birds and butterflies and a beloved favourite for children of all ages, they are quite drought hardy and durable, easily grown and fast flowering with a minimum of maintenance. Linarias are effective in baskets, beds, borders, planters, window boxes as well as in the cottage garden and wildflower meadow.

The plants mix effectively with a variety of other annuals, perennials, groundcovers and shrubs. Surely all these attributes must make little Linarias one of the unsung heroes of the garden world and worthy of a special spot in nearly any garden.

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dale-john 01-100x66 Dale Harvey and John Newton met in Melbourne Australia in 1981. Since then they both have supported each others careers while also building and maintaining their own. Read about how they were able to turn their joint careers into one and creating a dream of a better world starting in their own local community.

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