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Bastard Toadflax

Today’s PEI plant has a strange name and an even stranger lifestyle. Meet the Provincially uncommon Bastard Toadflax (Comandra umbellata).

Bastard Toadflax (Comandra umbellata)

First, that name! Back in the 1990s, I was leading the botanical work required for the addition of Greenwich to PEI National Park. Our team found a number of rare and uncommon species – including Bastard Toadflax – and CBC wanted to do a story on the project. I recall a fair bit of discussion about whether we could say the plant’s name on-air. (In the end, we did). In this case, ‘bastard’ isn’t a pejorative but rather just an old term for ‘false’. Apparently, someone thought the plant resembled true Toadflax (Linaria spp), although I don’t see any similarity.

Bastard Toadflax is one of our native ruderal species: a plant that lives in disturbed habitats. On PEI, our native ruderals are typically coastal, and Bastard Toadflax is found in pockets at West Point and North Cape, along our north shore dune systems from Alberton to Greenwich, and around the eastern tip to Basin Head. This plant reproduces both by seed and rhizome, so it’s not uncommon to find fairly dense patches of it.

While Bastard Toadflax is a green plant – it as has chlorophyll and can make food from sunlight – it is also parasitic on nearby species. Some of its roots send out structures that tap into the roots of other plants and siphon off water and nutrients. Bastard Toadflax will parasitize a broad range of species including Grey Birch, Red Maple, Poplar, many Asters and Goldenrods, Roses, Strawberry, Yarrow, and a variety of Grasses and Sedges.

Most of our plant parasites forego chlorophyll altogether. (I described Ghost Pipe [Monotropa uniflora] in a recent post [ ], but we have at least a half-dozen others). Bastard Toadflax’s hybrid lifestyle makes it a hemiparasite, but its adaptations don’t end there. Most hemiparasites don’t bother with mycorrhizal fungal associations to help them gain nutrients, but Bastard Toadflax does. So, it has three sources of nutrition: photosynthesis, parasitism, and mycotrophy! How cool is that?

The flowers of Bastard Toadflax are also unusual in that they have no petals (those five, pointy, greenish-white things are sepals: structures that protected the reproductive parts of the flower while they were developing). They’ll mature into fruit that is edible and surprisingly tasty if you get it early enough. Because of this plant’s status of uncommon throughout the Maritimes and the sensitive habitat it calls home, this is not one that should be foraged in any quantity. It’s more of a survival food, or just to taste and tick one more species off your life list.

Bastard Toadflax is a beautiful and unusual part of PEI untamed!

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