Sunday, June 28, 2020

Objects of life #5 - Butterfly Bush

Buddleja Davidii
Buddleja Davidii, today in my garden

The butterfly bush in my garden is the latest in a lineage of sorts. Specifically, it's a Buddleja Davidii which originates in Central China but is named after the French naturalist and missionary, Armand David.  Like many of our garden shrubs that are technically non-native, it's found a genial and generally welcome home in the UK, often thriving in a feral fashion, like it does on the disused railway line not far from here.

As the common name suggests it was my interest in entomology that first made me aware of the Buddleja. Certainly, it's the only shrub I could have named as a youngster - and taken you to every garden which had one in the crescents and avenues that were the heft of my childhood wanderings. The largest, on Burnside Road, had white flowers which caught the afternoon sun and where, one July after school, I first saw a Painted Lady. Its sighting is marked in a copy of the Observers Book of Butterflies that I still keep by my desk. Only last week I saw a Marbled White and made a similar pencilled note in the margin. 

Almost every house I've lived in since has had a Buddleja. The one in my current garden came from a cutting given to me by my mother - it was meant for our place in France but try as I might they won't take there. So I planted it here in the worst of soils and in three years it's grown above head height. My last home had one so big it was effectively a tree - in many ways, it was why I bought the place -  and yet as events turned out, our time there coincided with some of the wettest summers on record so the list of species it attracted is more paltry than I'd hoped.

In the Alps, the unkempt bushes on the verges and riversides are festooned with species that would have made my teenage eyes alight: fritillaries, gliders, graylings, even swallowtails and the occasional Purple Emperor are all regular sightings. Back in Wales, the list may be less extensive but I'm equally delighted with a Peacock or a Tortoiseshell - each as beautiful as any species I've seen in fifty years of looking.

My latest bush came into bloom this week and yesterday our new puppy was sniffing and sneezing at its flowers. Which reminded me that the fragrance is not for our pleasure, but has a different and more practical purpose. Look closely at a Buddleja on a sultry evening - or even better with a torch after dark - and you'll be inducted into the fabulous and fascinating world of moths. Unlike butterflies, which have only 57 UK species, there are more than 2.500 of their nocturnal cousins. If common naming were more democratic - and lyrical - the Buddleja should really be l'arbuste de papillons de nuit, as they'd say across the channel.

Years ago, when our elder boys were small we hired a chalet near Annecy for the summer.  The patio terrace had a Buddleja to its side and every evening around seven the hummingbird hawk moths would hover over the flower heads, dipping their long probosci into the nectar.  We'd eat our dinner to the hum of their wing beats, Daniel marvelling at the speed and dexterity of their flight.  Later, as the sun dipped, the other moths would arrive to feed in numbers too great to count or label.

I learned recently that the species name 'Buddleja' was bestowed in honour of the Reverend Adam Buddle, another cleric and naturalist - like Armand David -  who compiled a complete English Flora early in the eighteenth century. It's ironic that the Buddleja Davidii would not have been on his list. And yet, in its binomial naming, there's a connection between the UK and France which I like to think in some small imaginative way my attention to these commonplace shrubs pays homage to still. 

The bush in my garden will flower for perhaps a month, longer if I dead-head the stems. A friend who knows about these things tells me the blossom would be bigger if I pruned it next spring, but I doubt I shall. For I'd prefer to let its branches spread, and like me, in the years since I stood in the shade of those white blooms on Burnside Road, find their own ways to the sun.


  1. Much as it's valued for the insect life it supports, I find I don't like this shrub no matter how hard I try. It's glorious in flower but looks so scruffy the rest of the time and it's quite a thug. Years spent staring at its seedlings from the train window whilst waiting for a platform at Temple Meads station haven't helped.

    1. Thug - an apt (if harsh) description in many ways. I shall try to train mine to be more refined!