Plant of the Month: August 2021

When I was at school, a sign that autumn (and therefore the end of the holidays) was on its way was that buddleia started flowering – i.e. the end of August to early September. These days, it seems to start flowering in early July, and all the flowers at the side of the rail tracks to London (to which I have gadded twice in the last fortnight) are already starting to wither and brown. Is my memory at fault, or is this another manifestation of global warming?

Various buddleias

Like almost every plant name you come across these days, Buddleia is the subject of mild controversy. I had always believed that Linnaeus had named it in honour of the English (indeed East Anglian) clergyman and botanist Adam Buddle (1662–1715), at the suggestion of William Houstoun (c. 1695–1733), who had studied under Boerhaave at Leiden, and introduced 75 plants from the West Indies and Central America to Britain, sending dried specimens and seeds to Sir Hans Sloane and Philip Miller – but the ODNB has now shocked me to the core by saying that the attribution is uncertain. Who else could it be named after, then?

Sir Hans Sloane, by Stephen Slaughter (1697–1765). (Credit: National Portrait Gallery)

Not only that, but the spelling of the name ought apparently to change. ‘Buddleia’ was spelled by Linnaeus with a long ‘i’, or ‘j’: ‘Buddleja’; and since 2006, the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants has required it to be spelled thus, in spite of potential confusion in the pronunciation of the ‘j’ as a ‘j’ rather than a vowel glide. And I know you would be disappointed if I didn’t add that it is now classified in the tribe Buddlejeae in the family Scrophulariaceae (the figworts), having previously lived in the Buddlejaceae (otherwise known as Oftiaceae) and Loganiaceae. Names which did not stick for the genus itself are Adenoplea and Adenoplusia (proposed by Ludwig Adolph Timotheus Radlkofer (1829–1927) and Chilianthus, by William John Burchell (1781–1863), son of the Fulham nurseryman Matthew Burchell and alumnus of Kew Gardens, who sadly ended his life by suicide.

William John Burchell,
by Thomas Herbert Maguire (1821–95)

Although the buddleia named by Linnaeus was in fact Buddleja americana, which has a range from Mexico to South America (and was used as medicine by the inhabitants for various complaints, including intestinal ones), the buddleias we are most familiar with come from China, Budddleja davidii being the best known, and the parent of dozens of cultivars: it is also known as butterfly bush, summer lilac and orange eye.

Buddleja americana (Credit: Dick Culbert)

But returning to the Revd Adam Buddle (of whom no image seems to have survived), he was christened at Deeping St James, just on the Lincolnshire side of the border with Norfolk, on 17 April 1662. He was educated at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, and was a fellow of the college from 1681 to 1691, when he was ejected for refusing to take the oath of allegiance to William and Mary; he later succumbed, and was ordained in 1702. Living in Suffolk, a married man with children, he seemed to have the leisure, like many country parsons before and since, to take up natural history. He specialised in grasses and mosses, and was in correspondence with James Petiver (c. 1665–1718) and Samuel Doody (1656–1706), keeper of the Chelsea Physic Garden from 1693 until his death (Buddle preached his funeral sermon) as well as visiting the elderly John Ray in 1699.

He lent his collections widely (as far afield as Tournefort), and Dillenius used them to revise the third edition (1724) of Ray’s Synopsis methodica stirpium Britannicarum – he was though by his peers to be ‘the top of all the moss-croppers’. In 1703, he obtained the living of North Fambridge, Essex, but he was also Chapel Reader at Gray’s Inn, which presumably enabled him to visit London on a regular basis. He obtained this post through the Chapel Preacher, Robert Moss, dean of Ely and a Cambridge friend, of whom the Gray’s Inn website says disapprovingly that he ‘was notorious for amassing offices, and for years paid another cleric to preach at Gray’s Inn in his place’.

Robert Moss, from the from the frontispiece engraving by George Vertue for his Sermons and Discourses (1732)

Buddle’s masterwork was a complete English flora, both specimens and text, which was never published. On his death in London on 15 April 1715, he bequeathed it to Sir Hans Sloane, who valued it and shared it widely. It was indeed said by Dawson Turner (on whom more in due course!) that ‘justice was not done him by those of his immediate successors who more particularly benefited by his labours’. The manuscript and some specimens are in the British Library and the Natural History Museum, and other specimens in the department of Plant Sciences at Oxford. Buddle was buried at St Andrew’s Holborn, in the same graveyard as the great John Gerard, a century before.

Buddleja globosa, the orange ball tree, from South America

Now to the plants. There are over 140 of them in the genus, in the Americas, Africa and the Far East, and the earliest known introduction to Britain for garden use was the less familiar Buddleja globosa from Chile, which was distributed from Lee and Kennedy’s well-known Hammersmith nursery in 1774. (B. globosa has the great virtue of having wingless seeds, and so is much less invasive than B. davidii.)

The ubiquitous B. davidii

Something which astonishes me about the latter is that there are many web pages telling you how to grow it – as though it needed any encouragement. (In the same way, I’m amazed that nurseries actually sell Erigeron karvaskianus, which I fortunately love, as it grows like a weed in my garden.) You will guess from the name that it was discovered in China by Père Armand David (as in Père David’s deer, the giant panda, and hundreds more plants, animals birds, reptiles and insects, of which perhaps the least happy introduction is the emerald ash borer). Augustine Henry also sent seeds to St Petersburg in about 1877, and the French missionary/botanist André Soulié (1858–1905) sent plants to the Vilmorin nursery in Paris (another very interest story there!).

Père Armand David

As a result, breeding new varieties in Europe really took off only in the 1890s, and the emphasis at the moment appears to be on attempting to create sterile, non-invasive hybrids. During and after the Second World War, they, like ‘fireweed’, the rose bay willowherb (Chamaenerion angustifolium), sprang up on bomb-sites and derelict areas, and the pale purple type can be seen along every railway track in the country (though perhaps not in the north of Scotland, as they are not hardy below -15 C?), as well as growing up the cracks in walls and gutters of old and even some modern buildings. In the UK (since 1922), Ireland, several US states and New Zealand, it is classed as an invasive or noxious weed, but of course it is loved and even tolerated in many places because of the banquet of nectar that it offers to butterflies and moths, bees, and other insects.

A small tortoiseshell butterfly on buddleia at Lower Brockhampton in Herefordshire last week
B. davidii ‘Royal Red’

Looking at cultivars of B. davidii alone, there appear to be over 180, and more if you include the hybrids with B. globosa and B. fallowiana. There are also now 27 varieties offered as non-invasive (most of them with appallingly twee names). The other thing that breeding has done is reduce the height of the plant: most reach to about 5 m, but some are in fact classed as trees, reaching 30 m tall. Many modern cultivars are bred as ‘dwarf’ plants for pots on patios, though since they are mostly cut very hard back in winter, and seem to grow in rubbish soil, I’m surprised that dwarves are necessary.

A ‘Black Knight’ cutting, doing OK so far …

My own experience is limited: I used to have two: a ‘Nanho’ (white) and a ‘Black Prince’ (dark purple), but both hardly flowered, being both entangled with and shaded by clematis … The ‘Nanho’ was booted out in the Great Rebuilding of my garden last January, but I took a cutting of the ‘Black Knight’ which at 30 cm high is about to flower – I must now find it a place in which to flourish, and – hopefully – support the local insects.


This entry was posted in Biography, Botany, Gardens, History, Natural history and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Plant of the Month: August 2021

  1. Leana Pooley says:

    That was very interesting. I hadn’t known that there were so many varieties of buddleia.


  2. Peter Williams says:

    Thank you for another really excellent POTM post. The stories of the people involved with the introduction and naming of plants are always fascinating and rarely told so thank you very much for doing so.

    Just one small point, I believe the butterfly pictured is not a red admiral but a tortoiseshell


  3. Thank you so much, Peter! And especially for pointing out the error, which I’ve now fixed. There were lots of both, but this was the best picture I managed to take.


  4. H Twigs Way says:

    really super blog!

    thank you



  5. Pingback: Dawson Turner | Professor Hedgehog's Journal

  6. Pingback: Drought | Professor Hedgehog's Journal

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.