July – Buddleia
Illustration: Greg Stevenson
Words: Mathew Clayton
Some years ago, while working in a soulless job in Canary Wharf, I headed off one lunchtime to try and find the grave of the Reverend Adam Buddle, the 17th century botanist who lent his name to buddleia, also known as the butterfly bush.
If you look out of any train window in London during August you will spot its purple blossoms, shaped a bit like ice cream cones. My favourite patch is on a railway bank just outside Millwall football ground; a hinterland of railway arches, dodgy industrial estates and a jungle of buddleia. The plant arrived in England from China just over a hundred years ago. It escaped its original home at Kew Gardens, and now grows happily on any available patch of wasteground – the poorer the soil the better.
I first became aware of it on a visit to the social entrepreneur Nicholas Saunders’ flat in Neil’s Yard, Covent Garden. He had a small but perfectly kept lawn on his 4th floor roof and in the corner was an 8ft high buddleia. I remember him describing to me his wonder at how this giant plant had magically appeared out of thin air high above London.
The Reverand Buddle died in 1715 and was buried in St Andrews, a Christopher Wren church that once stood on the banks of the River Fleet, but now stands on the edge of the Holborn roundabout. He spent most of his life in a parish in Essex, and wrote a book called English Flora. It was never published but a copy of the manuscript survives in the Natural History Museum.
In fact the plant has no special connection to Buddle – it was given his name by the Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus in recognition of his wider botanical work (he was a moss expert – something surely everyone would like to be). The variety that grows wild has a Latin name of Buddleja Davidii and the second half of its nomenclature has more significance. It comes from another clergyman Armand David, a French missionary who brought back to Europe from the Far East hundreds of plants (including the buddleia) in the 19th century.
I never found Buddle’s grave, but fittingly, in the far corner of the churchyard, growing happily out of the side of a brick wall, was the plant he is now remembered by.