Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Dear Readers, when two wild Buddleia plants started to grow in my front garden, I had no idea that they would be quite so enthusiastic. The one next to the front gate wallops everyone who tries to get to the front door with a whippy bloom-covered stem, which is particular fun when it’s been raining. The one by the wheelie bins is at least ten feet tall.
But now that the lavender has finished flowering, it is the number one favourite of the pollinators around here. Have a look at this lot. The plant is also called Butterfly Bush, as I’m sure you know, and although I haven’t caught any photos of visiting Lepidoptera, it’s loved by every species from Cabbage White to Red Admiral.
Buddleia (Buddleia davidii) is originally from the mountainous areas of Hubei and Sichuan provinces in China, and was introduced to the UK when it was planted in Kew Gardens in 1896. It is named for the Basque missionary and explorer Father Armand David, who was the first European to see the Giant Panda, and who, in addition to his church duties, found time to identify no less than 63 species of mammal, 65 species of birds and and hundreds of species of plant which were previously unknown to Western science. In honour of his work, several species were named after him, including a very rare Chinese deer, which is known as Pere David’s Deer in the west. Several of the deer, which were extinct in the wild,and survived only in the Emperor’s garden, were smuggled into Europe, including one animal which was ‘rescued’ by the good Father himself. As it turned out, it’s just as well that he did, because during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 all the animals remaining in China were slaughtered and eaten. The European animals were brought together at Woburn Abbey, and bred so successfully that eventually some animals were able to be reintroduced back into China, a rare conservation success story.
But, back to Buddleia. It’s a member of the Figwort family (Scrophulariaceae), a diverse group which includes such plants as Mullein and that little white-flowered plant you often see in garden centres, Bacopa. The grey-green leaves can look a little tatty late on in the season, but the glory of the plant are its flowers, long inflorescences of purple, lilac or white flowers which smell intensely of honey. I remember passing a boarded-up lot in Whitechapel, and being stopped mid-step by the sound of bees and the extraordinary perfume coming from behind the hoardings. When I peered through a gap, I could see a veritable Buddleia forest, the plants about twelve feet high, the blossoms bowed down under the weight of bees. No doubt this site is a block of luxury flats now, but then it was the equivalent of an East End watering hole for pollinators, and no doubt a refuge for other creatures too.
Each individual flower is ‘perfect’ – this means that it contains both male and female parts. The tiny seeds are very undemanding, requiring only the smallest patch of soil to germinate, and, like Oxford Ragwort Buddleia is likely to have spread along railway lines, its seeds caught up in the slipstream of trains. When I used to commute into Liverpool Street Station in London, the grim trackside was lit up with bush after bush of Buddleia, and as we pulled into the station, past the blackened Victorian walls which lined the route, an occasional shrub could be seen growing from a tiny crack in the brick work. I am sure that the poor soil and exposed location is similar to the scree slopes for which the plant was originally adapted. In its native environment, it has been christened ‘the Harbourage of Tigers’, but in my locality it is more likely to be cover for a neighbour’s cat.
Despite looking in all my usual books and perusing the internet, I could find no references to medicinal or culinary uses for Buddleia, and yet I have a feeling that in its native habitat those enormous sweet-smelling flowers must have been used for something – maybe to sweeten wine, or to make jam, or to adorn houses to keep evil spirits away. At the very least they are surely the favourite flower of some benevolent bee goddess, who will have her work cut out looking after her subjects at the moment, what with the sneaky reintroduction of neonicotinoids to the UK and the general decline in pollinator habitat. I imagine that she is polishing up her sting at this very moment.
I have several varieties of Buddleia in my garden – I am trying a few dwarf Buddleia in my containers, and also have a yellow-flowered variety where the blooms are spherical. But nothing attracts the interest of insects like these wild ones. They fill a gap at the end of the early summer-flowering plants, and before the late summer Sedum and Michaelmas Daisies really get going. I was interested to read that Butterfly Conservation recommends the planting of Buddleia in gardens as a nectar source, even though the plant has no value as a food plant for caterpillars, such is its value to adult insects. However, I would question the need to plant it, as if you live in an area where Buddleia grows wild, some will almost certainly turn up and save you the expense. If you are worried about your single plant turning into a Buddleia forest, note that the seed only ripens in the spring, so dead-heading and autumn pruning should keep it under some kind of control. If not, the seedlings are very easy to pull up. When I am Queen, I shall provide everyone with a Buddleia seedling to pop into their garden or grow in a pot, so that the bees and butterflies, for a few weeks at least, will have a honey-scented corridor of flowers to make their lives a little easier. In the meantime, if you don’t have one already, maybe you could consider finding one yourself? I guarantee you will have some very grateful six-legged visitors.