Kenilworth Ivy, also known as Ivy-leaved Toadflax, Wall Pennywort (an ancient name) or Mother-of-Thousands (Cymbalaria muralis G. Gaertn., B. Mey. & Scherb.) is a plant native to the Southern Europe, but now present in several parts of the World (Subcosmpolite). It can usually be found in the crevices of old, moist walls (hence its specific name “muralis”, a Latin name that means “of the walls”), but also on rocks, in gardens, meadows, roadsides, preferably on calcareous or silicic-calcareous substrates, with basic pH and medium nutritional level, that are cool, rather shady or partially shaded, moist, from 0 to 1,500 m asl. [Acta]
Previously belonging to the Scrophulariaceae family (according to the Cronquist system), now the genera it belongs is assigned to the Plantaginaceae family (according to APG).
The name Cymbalaria probably comes from its resemblance of its leaves with a musical instrument similar to a tambourine, but with a hollow surface, called in Latin Cymbalum (in Greek, Kymbalon).
It is a perennial herbaceous plant, endowed with stolons, a thin, branchy stem that branches and roots at the nodes, frequently reddened, woody at the base, that can be creeping, climbing or pendulous. The leaves are usually alternate, but exceptionally the inferior ones can be opposite; they are of a light green color, but often reddish on the inferior surface; they are shiny and glabrous, fleshy, slightly concave. The hermaphrodite, zygomorphic flowers, 1 cm long, spur included, are solitary or paired at the leaf axils. The corolla, bilabiate, is purplish to whitish; the lower lip has two yellow gibbosities which bees use as a “guide” toward the nectar and pollen repository within the flower. The fruit is a glabrous, globular capsule that protrudes slightly from the calyx, and that contains some black, ovoid, wrinkled and crested seeds. The peculiar irregular shape of the seeds allows them to stay “hooked” to each other, so to form little seed groups [Acta].
The plant is pollinated by bees and it’s self-fertile. It is in bloom from May to October.
The plant can appear very little showy, especially before flowering, because of the small size of its leaves, not larger than 1.5 cm, but it’s anyway a very pretty plant. It can form green carpets or “cushions”, dotted with many bright-colored spots when in bloom.
Kenilworth Ivy has some peculiar characteristics that easily stand out. First of all, the exuberance: it’s definitely invasive, both from the reproductive point of view and from the more simply “spatial” one, since it easily covers up with its fronds whatever surrounds it.
Then resiliency. This plant needs really very little soil to thrive: the sandy dust found in the crevices, moisten with rain water is just enough to create a microenvironment so suitable to the plant to allow it to form a green carpet. Moreover, it has a good ability to self-regenerate from its node-rooting stems.
It’s definitely a prolific plant, as one of its common names, “Mother-of-Thousands” attests, both because it produces lots of seeds and because it’s able, as we have already told, to reproduce itself easily by means of stolons.
The plant behavior with respect to light is really interesting. We can say that the plant “lives” in the polarity between light and shade. Indeed, it shows a rather peculiar phototropism: the non-pollinated flowers tend to orientate toward light (a light that anyhow the plant partially shuns, since it doesn’t like strongly sunny places, preferring rather shaded or semi-shaded ones), but once pollinated, phototropism inverts and the flower peduncles starts to move toward the opposite direction, almost shunning sunlight, and at the same time elongating so much to measure more than twice the length of the peduncles that bear non-fertilized flowers. This mechanism allows the forming fruits to be pushed through the crevices within the rocks, where the seeds can find shelter and the best conditions to germinate.
Kenilworth Ivy is a plant that lives mainly in the “dimension” of the stem and leaf. The roots are small and thin. The flower, very numerous and definitely pretty, going as far as sketching a certain anthropomorphism, are able to attract bees and guide them “chromatically” toward the pollen and nectar repositories. Although numerous and quite “complete” (since their ability of attracting pollinating insects), the flowers are anyway small and relatively simple from the structural and functional point of view. So, the part that mostly characterizes the plant is the stem. This vegetal element can creep, climb or hang down, according to the specific conditions, showing as being only partially “grasped” by geotropism. Along the stem are inserted in a quite “measured” manner the nodes, which possess the peculiar ability to send out both leaves, flowers and roots, almost as if each node contained potentially in itself the entirety of the plant: it’s as if the plant were (potentially) composed of several “minimal” plants, almost independent and able to live on their own, connected by means of the stem. If we look at the non-rooting nodes, we can note that they send out typically 2-3 floral or foliar elements, each of them supported by a peduncle of its own: at an advanced stage of flowering, we can visually attest (see fig. 3) the light-shade polarity, because each node sends out 1 or 2 elements toward the sunlight (leaf and/or nonfertilized flower) and 1 or 2 elements in the opposite direction (fertilized flower or fruit).
Kenilwort Ivy is mainly characterized by Saturnian and Venusian traits. Saturn characterizes it since the environment it lives in, its habitat, mostly made up of hard rock, cold and dry (since it can hold only little water), and clearly this “marks” its therapeutic actions too. The plant prolificacy, the grace with which it shows to the observer, the care that it shows in “looking after” its offspring (the seeds) make us foresee the Venusian aspects of its actions upon the human physiology.
Moreover, it possesses an almost hidden “touch” of Martiality: the plant, that can be eaten raw (the leaves in salad) in moderate quantity, has an acrid and pungent taste not dissimilar from that of cress, sign of a strong and definite presence of sulphurous processes. The plant should be eaten in moderate quantity because, according to some sources (however not verified, see for instance [PFAF]), it can be slightly toxic.
Kenilwoth Ivy is diuretic, antihydropic and stone-breaking (Venusian actions), wound healing, anti-inflammatory and vulnerary, astringent and antihaemorrhoidal (Saturnian actions), antiscorbutic (Martial action) [Gerard]. Eaten raw in salad is effective against the “choleric white fluxes” of women (leucorrhea, another Saturnian action) [Durante].
[Durante] Castore Durante, “Herbario Nuovo” (1667)
[Gerard] John Gerard, “The Herbal or General History of Plants: The Complete 1633 Edition”, 1633