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Life

In defence of buddleja, blossom of the concrete jungle

The butterfly bush may be an introduced species, but it flourishes in the places other plants don’t, bringing a burst of colourful life to our tired urban landscapes

I’ve been a city gardener all my working life. For years I’ve dug and pruned in the service of people and plants from everywhere. The countryside is lovely, but as nice as fields and woods are, my heart lies in the scrappy mass of hedges, trees and trampolines that we make when living 5,000 to a square kilometre.

London is where I learned to see plants for the first time, not just as bits of green background, but as identifiable things with names and characteristics. Had I awakened to vegetation in the Hampshire Downs I would feel a special affection for beech trees and if I’d become aware on the North York Moors I’d write about heather. But no, it happened in Camberwell and so I love buddleja.

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I’m not alone. Buddleja (aka the butterfly bush) has a rogue’s charm. It’s both pretty and disreputable, sending out panicles of flower against all odds; bringing bees and beauty to brick walls and railway bridges. But the plant has its haters.

As well as behaving thuggishly towards old buildings, it is not from these parts and is viewed with suspicion. Often, it is categorised as an ‘invasive alien’ – a foreign plant that takes up space rightfully belonging to ‘native’ British flora. Buddleja’s detractors point out that although it provides nectar for pollinators, it evolved far away from the digestive systems of our local insects, who are not adapted to lay eggs or feed on its sliver-and-green foliage.

Over here a mature English oak can play a part in the life cycle of 2,300 species, a buddleja just 30. Which might well be true, but we should remember that oak trees don’t grow from cracked chimney pots in Southwark or dumped rubble in Dalston.

The modern city’s ecosystem is manmade. It’s a chaotic, scrappy, crosspollinating blend of everywhere and everything, and buddleja is its king. In an essay for Plants and Habitats of European Cities the ecologist Michael J Crawley identifies 21st century London’s most characteristic plant community as the buddleja-conyza scrub. This is what springs up when a Londoner abandons their garden or a building site runs out of money. A jungle of scrawling herbs, young trees and shrubs, 80 per cent of which are not native to the region. This botanical mashup lets a single street host plants from six separate continents. In the urban environment walking to the shops for a pint of milk takes us past combinations of plants that have likely never been seen before in horticulture or science. 

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Buddleja davidii originated in China. It is named after two men of the cloth. Buddleja refers to Adam Buddle, a vicar from outside Peterborough who was held in high regard by Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy. These are how things go in the Eurocentric history of how the plants got their names. Davidii is for Father Armand David, a French missionary and priest, who brought the species to the west from the Himalayan foothills in 1869.

Further plants were sent by Augustine Henry in 1887, this time from Hubei, and a new variety was collected from the hills of Kangding by Jean André Soulié in 1893. The final influx came from collections made by E H Wilson on the banks of the Gaolan River.

The wonderful truth of the buddleja we see in London, Bristol or Leeds is that not only is it relatively new to Europe, it is new to the world. The wasteland escapees combine genetic material from populations once separated by mountains, valleys and hundreds of miles. 

The plant’s giraffe-tongues of mauve flower might not be ‘natural’ for Camberwell, but what about this place is? I have sympathy with those who want to preserve the biodiversity of our towns, but they must see that it is not buddleja keeping out broadleaf woodland and heath. It is our cars and all the roads, car parks and paved-over front gardens that come with them. These machines, not the butterfly bush, should be driven from the city.

The Grove by Ben Dark is out on April 7
(Mitchell Beazley, £16.99)

The foreigners are here to stay. Their stories of distant hills make our lives more interesting, unexpected and beautiful. We must remember that there is space enough for them and the things that have been here for centuries. Instead of obsessing over the resources they might take from natives we would do better to consider how to reorganise the way we live so that we might all thrive. There is abundant space on this island. It is not the new arrivals that impoverish us, be they people or plants, but the old, entrenched ways of doing things. 

I hope that each time we see a bravely flowering buddleja we can remember this. 

Ben Dark is a gardening writer and podcaster @Bensgarden

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