An obscure 17thc botanist cleric is very prominent in many gardens at the moment because of a plant, that as so often in the weird and wonderful ways of botanical names, he never saw, didn’t even know existed and had absolutely no connection with in any shape or form. Yet his is one of the few botanists names that really are well-known. That’s because because the plant is also renowned as a colonising weed, which grows rapidly in the poorest ground, filling waste ground, lining railway embankments and even cracks in walls, roofs and gutters where its hard to imagine how anything survives let alone thrives. It has no predators to munch its leaves, but unlike the other invasive plants such as Japanese knotweed or Himalayan balsam, that this description applies to, it instead attracts butterflies and insects and fills the air with a wonderful honey-like fragrance.
The Guardian in an editorial called this plant “the ragamuffin of the natural world” saying “It is common as muck and as easy as dandelions to grow” ….
and is, as I’m sure you guessed, Buddleia.
But what’s its connection with an obscure clergyman?
Adam Buddle was born at Deeping St James in Lincolnshire in 1665. He was educated at St Catherine’s College, Cambridge becoming a fellow after his graduation, but like many others was then ejected in 1691 after refusing to swear religious allegiance to the new king, William III. He later changed his mind and in 1702 was ordained at Ely Cathedral. The following year he became rector of North Fambridge, near of Maldon in Essex, and also accepted the post of reader at the chapel of Gray’s Inn, London.
While still in his 20s Buddle began studying bryophytes, the plant group that covers mosses, hornworts and liverworts, and was one of the first people in England to do so. He was also in correspondence with other plant lovers like Samuel Doody of Chelsea Physic Garden, and James Petiver, the apothecary of the Charterhouse, as well as with Joseph Pitton de Tournefort in Paris. Once at Gray’s Inn he went botanizing around the capital with them and others. Buddle also knew and worked with fellow clergyman John Ray author of Catalogus Plantarum Angliae [ A Catalogue of English Plants] (1670), which was together with Ray’s Synopsis of 1696 the standard reference work for English flora and its taxonomy.
Buddle built up a large well annotated herbarium collection [including 22 volumes covering mosses!] and in 1708 finished writing an accompanying English Flora. This was never published, but the manuscript survives – along with his herbarium – as part of the Sloane collection at the Natural History Museum in London. It must have been well regarded since he is known to have lent it to to Petiver, and to Joseph Bobart at Oxford as well as to Tournefort in France. Bobart wrote thanking Buddle telling him that it was “the best collection of its kind in the world, and as instructive as admirable.”
But Buddle collected more than plants in his herbarium. Given that the Buddleia is popularly known as the butterfly bush its very appropriate that the multi-volume manuscript also contains pressed insects including moths and at least 31 species of butterflies collected around London. They are all labelled with links to his friend Petiver’s Musei Petiveriani. It is one of the oldest butterfly collections known.
Buddle died aged only 50 at Gray’s Inn in 1715 and was buried at the nearby church of St Andrews Holborn.
So how come he got the honour of having a whole family of plants named after him? For that we have to thank another now forgotten botanist, William Houstoun. He was a Scottish medic and contemporary of Buddle, who was a ship’s surgeon and collected plants in Jamaica, Cuba, Venezuela, and Mexico sending seeds and plants back to Philip Miller, at the Chelsea Physic Garden in London. Amongst them was the most widespread of all the Buddleja species native to the Americas. His choice of name was agreed by Linnaeus in his description of Buddleja americana. It maybe widespread in its own home territory but it’s very rare in cultivation in Europe becasue it’s not frost-hardy.
And no, I haven’t mistyped the plant’s scientific name.The reason that it’s buddleja rather than buddleia, which would be the expected spelling, is apparently because Linnaeus used a long-tailed “i” when writing the description. [Early modern handwriting often used such conventions rather like the better known possible confusion between the long-tailed ‘s’ and an ‘f’ or the use of v for u.] And although he used a standard ‘i’ in the index, and others tried to correct the misunderstanding, the convention of the first description becoming the officially accepeted one holds good and so buddleja it is officially, although rarely anywhere else. It came as something of a surprise to me to learn that Buddleja is a widespread genus of about 140 species. John Chau, of the Burke Museum in Seattle, has used genetic evidence to trace the environmental history of buddleia and found it originated in southern Africa, about 10 million years ago, and spread in a series of separate events to Madagascar, Asia and the Americas. Most are fast growing deciduous shrubs although there a few evergreens, some herbaceous sorts, and a few that can be classified as trees growing to 30m [c.100ft]. As you might have guessed from the behaviours of the common form in Britain, they are usually opportunistic colonizers often able to sustain enormous ranges of conditions.
After Houstoun’s discovery the next member of the family to be introduced to the west was of B. globosa from southern Chile in 1774 which was taken into commercial cultivation via Lee and Kennedy’s Vineyard nursery at Hammersmith. The herbarium catalogue at Kew then records a flood of discoveries/ introductions from Asia and the Americas in the earlier decades of the 19thc most of which are relatively unknown to gardeners today. They include Buddleja saligna from Botswana in 1812, Buddleja neemda from Nepal in 1821, Buddleja parviflora from Mexico in 1830, B. oblonga from Brazil and paniculata and crispa from India in 1831. Of course the fact that they are recorded in the catalogue does not mean they were actually growing in Britain’s gardens or greenhouses.
B. colvilei , for example was collected by Joseph Hooker in Sikkim in 1849 but Gardeners Chronicle 18th June 1892 has a letter from Irish horticulturist William Gumbleton stating that “this beautiful and most distinctly hardy shrub …is flowering with me this summer. I believe for the first time in Europe, but on this point I shall be glad of correction.” A few weeks later the magazine carried an illustration. [For more on Gumbleton see “William Edward Gumbleton (1840-1911), Connoisseur and Bibliophile” by B. D. Morley and E. C. Nelson Garden History Vol. 7, No. 3 (Winter, 1979), pp. 53-65]But to most people Buddleia is almost synonymous with B. davidii, which was first mentioned by, and then named after, the French missionary and explorer in China, Father Armand David. He collected and sent specimens to the Paris Musée National d’Historie Naturelle where it was officially described by Adrien René Franchet in 1869.
Specimens of the same species later collected by Irish plant hunter Dr Augustine Henry and were sent to Kew in 1887 where, unaware of Franchet’s description, they named the plant B. variabilis. Despite this being corrected a couple of decades later B. variabilis was well-established in the British nursery trade and can still be seen as listed as a synonym of B. davidii. Other introductions were made including several of seeds from different sources, and which produced plants of differing qualities, but the French nursery firm Vilmorin had B. davidii in commercial production by the late 1890s and British nurserymen were not far behind.
Soon there were B. davidii breeding programs underway, particularly that of Major William van de Weyer of Corfe in Dorset who managed to cross B. globosa and B. davidii to create B. x weyerana. This was a lucky occurrence as it is rare that these two species should be in flower together. He wrote up his experiments in Gardeners Chronicle in 1920. A new wave of hybridization started in the 1990s aimed at developing shorter forms, and sterile varieties which did not pose an ecological threat. This was important becasue it didn’t take long for the buddleia to escape from the garden.
By 1922 B.davidii was first recorded growing in the Merioneth countryside in Wales, probably escaping from a garden via its miniscule seed which is easily wind-dispersed. It had become widespread in the wild by the 1930s particularly in urban areas. Naturalized populations expanded, rapidly during and after the war because bombed sites and building rubble were suitable habitats for colonization. The fact that Buddleia became a popular garden shrub in the 1950s and 1960s also helped its naturalization in the wild.
The British pattern has been replicated all over Europe and many other parts of the world. To the point where B. davidii is now in the top 20 of European weeds. Perhaps that’s not surprising as it can tolerate severe cold – it has been recorded as surviving -28C. It does, however, suffer from heat stress so its range does not reach into the sub-tropics. It is surprisingly tolerant of high levels of rainfall, and has, for example, been found happily invading parts of South Island, New Zealand where there is as much as 5.5m of rain a year [210″] although it has not [yet at least] established itself in deserts or the dry steppes.
And there is an upside to this too. Buddleia is mainly only a problem when it’s in the wrong place. When in the right place, its nectar attracts insects, which in turn attract birds and bats, and since it naturally creates dense thickets these provide cover in urban areas for foxes and badgers. But we mustn’t end up being complacent and seeing Buddleia as entirely wildlife positive. Even Butterfly Conservation which recommends planting Buddleia for its summer nectar is concerned particularly where it naturalizes near sensitive conservation areas. For example at Folkestone Warren, a 200 hectare site of chalk grassland designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in Kent. Buddleia has naturalised and has to be very strictly controlled or it would completely overwhelm the grassland. To the casual observer this might not matter since there are still clouds of butterflies but they are mainly from the commonest species while the rarer ones are disappearing because their food plants are choked out.
It is now classified by DEFRA as an invasive non-native species, although its not an offence to plant it or allow it to escape unlike many other invasive plants listed in Schedule 9 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act . One of the reasons for this is that, unlike Japanese Knotweed and Himalayan Balsam, eradication or management strategies might not be that popular. And that’s simply because it has a bit of a glamour factor and appeals to the public.
When this happens, the public can easily become its champion arguing for protection, as in the example of Buddleia Fields at Croxley Green in Hertfordshire. In 1953 a 35-acre site was by acquired by London Transport as a tip for spoil, earth and stones resulting from their various engineering operations. According to a Guardian article in 2007 “Some 20 years later, the tipping stopped, leaving a radically changed landscape and a habitat unique to the region – ripe for new fauna and flora.” When LT applied for permission to redevelop the site in 2004 the villagers objected and after a fight obtained Village Green status saving the buddlieas and the other 100 or so species which had colonised the site. It helps explain why BBC reporter Tanya Gupta could argue that Buddleia “stakes an increasingly plausible claim for the title of Britain’s national flower.”
For a lengthy but readable scientific report on the botany, ecology and impact of buddleja, and an extensive reference list for further reading see “The Invasive Buddleja davidii (Butterfly Bush)” by Nita G. Tallent-Halsell & Michael S. Watt, Botanical Review (2009) which is available as a free download from the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Other useful sites are The Buddleja Garden and Buddleia.net There is also a Timber Press/RHS monograph: David Stuart’s Buddlejas, 2006