Dear Readers, what a strange plant this is, with its stiff stems and heads of tiny purple-pink flowers! I until a few years ago it was a relative rarity in London gardens, and I can see why – the flowerheads are small for the size of the plant, which can grow up to six feet tall. But then the other day I saw some planted with grasses and Japanese anemones, and I finally appreciated its delicate beauty. Plus, it is a great late summer plant for butterflies, and as so many people are trying to do their bit for wildlife these days it has grown in popularity. Finally, it is drought-tolerant, and we all need a bit of that in London, what with it being nearly 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
The name ‘Verbena’ means ‘sacred bough’, but this refers to Verbena officinalis or Vervaine, a plant used for medicine and for sacred ritual from the Druids onwards and introduced to the UK in the Stone Age. You can see the family resemblance in the photo below, especially the stiff stems.
‘Bonariensis’ means ‘from Buenos Aires’, indicating that the plant originated in South America. It has naturalised in the warmer parts of North America and is considered a noxious weed in some states.
In the US, the plant is known as ‘purpletop’ or ‘South American vervaine’. It seems strange to me that the plant doesn’t yet have a common name in the UK, considering how popular it’s become. In their book on Alien Plants, Clive Stace and Michael J. Crawley call it ‘Argentine Vervaine’, so maybe this will catch on. However, a new variety of the plant, which is smaller with larger flowers, is known as ‘Lollipop Verbena’ so maybe this is the name that will stick.
In ‘Alien Plants’, Verbena bonariensis is described as being one of the UK’s fastest spreading non-native plants. It certainly loves to self-seed and, as it gives height to plantings in supermarket car parks and municipal beds it’s easy to see where the spread is coming from. Plus you can grow it from seed, which saves lots of money, no small thing if you’re a cash-strapped council. I foresee fields of ‘purpletop’ in our future.
Medicinal uses for the plant seem to be few and far between, at least in Europe. One site describes it as useful for love potions. Another mentions how their dog seems to love eating it. Humans, however, do not appear to eat the plant in any form that I can find. I suspect that it might be useful as a dried flower, and Alys Fowler describes the blackened seed heads as ‘most arresting’. But if you have a patch of the garden in full sun, you might want to grow the plant just to see which insects turn up.
I always have a bit of a problem with what to plant for once my buddleia and lavender have finished, and I am thinking of getting a raised bed for my south-facing front garden, to replace the selection of pots that I currently have – even with daily watering the plants have suffered this year, and I think they might stand a better chance in deeper soil. I suspect that some Verbena bonariensis will definitely feature after the display of insects above, especially if I can grow it from seed. It’s good to have a gardening project to consider when I have so much else going on. It’s difficult to dwell on dark thoughts when leafing through a seed catalogue.And so to a poem, and what a sock in the eye this one is, especially as we all pant in the grip of a heatwave that is longer than any I can remember.
‘Sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry‘……
In the beginning, the ending was beautiful.
Early spring everywhere, the trees furred
pink and white, lawns the sharp green
that meant new. The sky so blue it looked
manufactured. Robins. We’d heard
the cherry blossoms wouldn’t blossom
this year, but what was one epic blooming
when even the desert was an explosion
of verbena? When bobcats slinked through
primroses. When coyotes slept deep in orange
poppies. One New Year’s Day we woke
to daffodils, wisteria, onion grass wafting
through the open windows. Near the end,
we were eyeletted. We were cottoned.
We were sundressed and barefoot. At least
it’s starting gentle, we said. An absurd comfort,
we knew, a placebo. But we were built like that.
Built to say at least. Built to reach for the heat
of skin on skin even when we were already hot,
built to love the purpling desert in the twilight,
built to marvel over the pink bursting dogwoods,
to hold tight to every pleasure even as we
rocked together toward the graying, even as
we held each other, warmth to warmth,
and said sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry while petals
sifted softly to the ground all around us.Photo Credits
Photo One by Andreas Rockstein at https://www.flickr.com/photos/74738817@N07/28519290812
Photo Three by By Dinkum [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Verbena_bonariensis_with_a_bee.JPG
Photo Flour by Dave Merrett at https://www.flickr.com/photos/davehamster/3896579963
Photo Five by Dwight Sipler at https://www.flickr.com/photos/photofarmer/272560745
Photo Seven by frank wouters (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons