Purple toadflax came uninvited to my allotment, as it is wont to do, and got to stay because the bees were so pleased. Linaria purpurea is not native – it hails from Italy. It is, however, widely naturalised and a fan of railway edges, stone walls, concrete cracks and other dry, free-draining spots from which it manages to create lofty spires of tiny purple flowers that look like snapdragons.
It’s the sort of thing that prefers to seed itself on a path edge and thus is a bit like that tall guy at the front of a gig, who everyone would like much better if he stood at the back. Still, it is a lovely thing to watch, humming with pollinators, and makes a very good cut flower, which is one way to temper it. Better still, plant one of a suite of sterile hybrids that have appeared on the market in recent years. These won’t seed around, will keep their looks – L. purpurea gets tatty towards the end of the summer – and come in wonderful hues.
There are a number of hybrids, such as L. ‘Peachy’, which is a pretty pale pink. It looks lovely among swaying grasses such as Stipa tenuissima or the palest of orange calendulas, such as ‘Orange Flash’. Then there is the candy-coloured L. ‘Onslow Pink’, with a dark eye and pale pink flush to the outer edges, which grows to 60-80cm high against the typical blue-grey foliage. For those who don’t want soft pinks, there’s L. purpurea ‘Poached Egg’: it has a yolk-yellow centre and a particularly long flowering season (this one will seed itself around).
Beth Chatto’s Plants, Cotswold Garden Flowers and Wildegoose Nursery all offer a range of plants. I ordered a single plant in the post this spring but managed to break off two stems while unpacking. This was not a tragedy, though, as these sterile hybrids can be bulked up by softwood cuttings using the tips of non-flowering shoots from spring to early summer. I rooted them in very free-draining compost with a clear plastic bag over the top to increase humidity.
The plan is working so far: three plants are much more fun to play with than one. I’m going to dot them among the purple fennel along the back of the fence that bakes in summer heat. Linarias love sunny, dry spots, where they will flower from now into September.