Buddleja (a.k.a. Buddleia) – the butterfly bush

It’s nearly a month since I wrote my last blog post, because the weather has been sunny and warm and I’ve spent quite a bit of time out and about looking for butterflies and other insects. I have photographed many of these on Buddleja bushes in various parts of Norfolk. It is not surprising that the most commonly grown species, Buddleja davidii, is known as the Butterfly Bush.

Red Admiral butterfly on Buddleija

Red Admiral butterfly on Buddleija davidii

I tend to spell Buddleja with an “i” – “Buddleia” – and this was the spelling I grew up with. However, Linnaeus used the spelling Buddleja and this has now been adopted as the correct spelling. The genus Buddleja is in its own family, the Buddlejaceae, and the name was given to commemorate the Reverend Adam Buddle (1662–1715), an English cleric and botanist who spent much of his life in East Anglia.

Buddleja davidii comes from China and is one of a number of shrubs in the genus. It grows easily in gardens, preferring a sunny spot, though even in shade its tall branches can grow up into the sun within a season. Flower spikes are produced in July, August and September at the top of the same season’s growth. The flowers are strongly scented and can be a bit overpowering on a hot sunny day. Outdoors they are pleasant but in a vase indoors their presence rapidly overpowers and I’ve only tried them as cut flowers once, for about an hour.

Left to its own devices, a Buddleja davidii bush can grow very large. New shoots grow outwards and upwards each year and soon the flowers are about fifteen to twenty feet (4 – 6 metres) tall and too tall to see any insects (especially butterflies) that are attracted to them. It is a good idea to prune the bushes every year, to about a foot (30cm) from the ground. This can be done in autumn or early spring – I cut mine in March. Cut stems can be used as hardwood cuttings in winter, if you want to propagate. They are very easy to grow: I use my Buddleja sticks to mark rows of seedlings on my allotment and a few of these markers sprout leaves every year! Cuttings are a good way to produce plants with the same flower colour as the parent, if you have a cultivar you particularly like. Buddleija davidii produces copious seed in the south of Britain, but the resulting plants will usually have pale mauve flowers.

Since Buddleija davidii self-seeds so readily, it can become a very invasive plant in urban areas and on waste ground or on railway tracks. The species was introduced to Kew Gardens in 1896 and was growing in the wild in the UK by the 1920s. In 2008 DEFRA estimated that Buddleja costs the British economy £961,000 per year, because it damages old buildings and has to be cleared from railway tracks. Maybe this isn’t entirely bad: a Buddleja seeded into our chimney on our previous house and cost us money (bad for us) but it also provided employment to a local handyman (good for him and the local economy). Butterfly Conservation have produced a very sensible Position Statement about Buddleja davidii, which suggests ways to use the plant to encourage butterflies without it becoming a nuisance. The RSPB also give advice, including alternative plants for attracting butterflies. I find that Verbena bonariensis is especially attractive to butterflies, even when a Buddleja davidii is in flower right beside it.

Buddleja davidii is also an invasive species in some other parts of the world and is banned in some parts of the United States. On her Toronto Gardening All Year Round blog, Rosemary Waigh recommends some alternative plants for attracting butterflies in the United States and Canada.

Buddleja seeds are appreciated by birds but if you’re concerned about the plant spreading, you can remove the spent flowerheads when they turn brown, which also makes the plant flower longer. (Seeds don’t develop until late winter.) If you prune some bushes in autumn and some later in spring you will also prolong the flowering season.

There are other, more refined, varieties of Buddleja. Buddleja x weyeriana is the name given to hybrids between Buddleja davidii and the spring flowering “Orange Ball Tree”, Buddleja globosa. Flowers of B. x weyeriana are intermediate between the two parents, but the flowers are produced slightly later than Buddleja davidii. Flower colour varies, so it’s a good idea to look for one in nursery or garden centre in August, so you can see the flowers before buying. Variety ‘Sungold’ is one of the loveliest, with clear yellow flowers. We grow a form with a mix of mauve and yellow in the flowers, perhaps a variant of ‘Moonlight’. Ours attracts butterflies and bees just like B. davidii. Growth and pruning are like B. davidii. Not everyone is a fan – the late Christopher Lloyd wrote that B. x weyeriana “combines the worst features of both parents in a sickly orange, pink and mauve vomit.” I think that was very unkind, but you can decide.

Buddleja globosa flowers in early summer and for this reason I have rarely seen butterflies on the blooms, though the flowers have plenty of nectar and are loved by bees. The shrub needs very little pruning.

Bumblebees on Buddleja globosa

Bumblebees on Buddleja globosa

We also grow Buddleja alternifolia. This is an elegant plant, though it can grow as big as any other Buddleja (3 metres high and 4 metres across). It has smaller, alternate leaves which look a bit like willow, and elegant arches of pale mauve flowers. The flowers are produced on the previous year’s shoots in late spring, so pruning is very different from Buddleja davidii. As with B. globosa, bees like the flowers. The species is not invasive in the UK.

Buddleja alternifolia

A fine specimen of Buddleja alternifolia, in the Bishop’s Garden in Norwich.

There is a lot of other interesting information on different species and varieties of Buddleja on the web. I can recommend the The Telegraph’s article “The Butterfly Effect: blossoming buddleia” and the Urban Butterfly Garden and The Buddleia Garden websites. The Plants for a Future website reports no known uses of Buddleja for human food or medicine, but the flowers can be used to make dyes.

Tufted Vetch, Vicia cracca

Tufted Vetch
A month ago I wrote about our wildflower meadow and at the time of writing it was predominantly white. A month later, the Wild Carrots are still in flower but the southern half of the meadow is now purple with Tufted Vetch, Vicia cracca. All this comes from a single plant, though I notice it has set seed and there is a much smaller plant to the north.

Tufted Vetch is a member of the Pea family (Fabaceae) and is a scrambling perennial herb that dies down completely in the winter. Indeed, this spring I wondered if I’d lost the plant, as I could find no sign of it when most of the other wild flowers in the meadow started to grow. I needn’t have worried – the plant is in rude health. It started to flower at the end of June and will continue into August. After it has flowered, four to eight seeds will be produced per pod. Each pod has a distinctive nail or claw-like tip.

My plant came in a pot but Tufted Vetch is found in most parts of the British Isles, in hedgerows, road verges, woodland edges, scrubby grassland and on river and canal banks. It can also be found in permanent pastures and hay meadows, provided these are cut late in the season after the plant has set seed. It doesn’t like permanently wet soil but grows in drier parts of marshes and fens. Outside Britain, Tufted Vetch occurs throughout Europe, in Greenland and in Asia as far east as Japan. It has been introduced to North America, where it is naturalised from Canada to South Carolina, including Minnesota. (It is sometimes considered to be invasive.) Its other English names include Cow Vetch, Bird Vetch, Blue Vetch and Boreal Vetch.

Tufted Vetch needs the support of other plants and it scrambles up their stems, using tendrils. But its leaves are fine enough to allow light to reach the plants that provide its support. I love Tufted Vetch’s single-sided clusters of blue-violet flowers and so do bees, especially the Brown-banded Carder Bee, Bombus pascuorum.

Bombus pascuorum on Tufted Vetch

Bombus pascuorum (Brown-banded Carder Bee) on Tufted Vetch

Tufted Vetch can be used as a green manure or as a forage crop for cattle and, like other members of the Pea family, the plant has root nodules which contain nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Budgerigars and other pet birds are apparently fond of the seed and foliage.

According to the Plants For A Future website Tufted Vetch’s seeds can be eaten when cooked (boiled or roasted) and the leaves and young stems can be eaten if cooked. The leaves can also be used to make a tea. The plant can promote lactation – the technical name is “galactogogue“.

If you’d like to grow Tufted Vetch, it is quite easy to grow from seed. The tough seed coat inhibits germination, so you may need to be patient, or you can scarify the seed to speed things up.

Our Wildflower Meadow

Meadow in mid June 2016. (The yellow flower at the front is Cat’s-ear, which was already in the lawn.)

When we moved house just over three years ago the garden was empty, almost literally. The previous owners didn’t like gardening and the back garden was mostly lawn.

Within days we had started to create a garden – this was a much higher priority than making changes to the house. By the end of the first summer we had several flowerbeds, a gravel garden, a greenhouse and a pond. The next step was to make the lawn a bit more exciting, by creating a small wildflower meadow, just nine feet (nearly three metres) long and six feet (nearly two metres) wide. We chose a sunny spot towards the end of the garden.

I started work in August 2013 by removing the turf. Removing turf reduces the fertlity of the soil and this helps to prevent the grass from becoming too lush once your meadow establishes itself. If you take the turf up and lightly disturb the soil and then leave it for several weeks, you should be able to remove the resulting crop of weeds by hand and then sow your wildflower seeds. But the summer of 2013 was very dry and I found that nothing germinated until I sowed my wildflower seeds on 8th September and watered them in.

clear ground

September 2013: I removed the turf and sowed the wild flower seeds.

I sowed a wildflower seed mix for sandy soils from Emorsgate Seeds. It is a good idea to know what soil type you have, as different mixes are available for different soils but if you’re not sure, you can choose a general purpose wildflower mix.

A wildflower mix for a meadow includes grasses such as Sweet Vernal Grass (Anthoxanthum odoratum), Crested Dogstail (Cynosurus cristatus) and Smaller Cat’s-tail (Phleum bertolonii). These are very beautfiful and add to the meadow’s interest to humans and wildlife alike.

As the meadow grew I also added container grown plants in ones and twos, such as Lesser and Greater Knapweeds (Centaurea nigra and C. scabiosa), Meadow Buttercup (Ranunculus acris), Bird’s-foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) and Tufted Vetch (Vicia cracca). I also moved some Oxeye Daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) from the allotment to one corner of the meadow.

This is now the meadow’s third summer and it has changed every year.

In the first summer poppies dominated. They weren’t in the seed mix but the soil’s seed bank. They were extremely pretty and actually benefitted the slower growing perennials in the seed mix by acting as a nurse crop, proving protection to the growing seedlings.

mostly poppies

Early June 2014: Mostly poppies, plus a clump of transplanted Oxeye Daisies.

In the second summer the poppies mostly died out but the flowers from the seed mix more than made up for this loss, especially the airy red-green dock flowers of Common Sorrel (Rumex acetosa), Ribwort Plantain (Plantago lanceolata) and a mass of Wild Carrot (Daucus carota), the latter proving very popular with various beetles. Common Red Soldier Beetles (Rhagonycha fulva) actually preferred these heads to those of Bishop’s Flower (Ammi majus), the star of the previous summer.

This year more plants from the seed mix have matured: Bladder Campion (Silene vulgaris) is in flower and there are recognisable plants of Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) and Lady’s Bedstraw (Galium verum), which will flower later in the summer or next year. Hairy Tare (Vicia hirsuta) and Common Vetch (Vicia sativa) have established themselves from seed and the Oxeye Daisies have spread throughout the meadow.

meadow July 2015

Mid July 2015: Wild Carrot and Bird’s-foot Trefoil in the meadow. The border in the background is also in full flower, giving the illusion that the meadow is larger than it is.

Every time we walk around the garden we do at least a couple of circuits of the meadow, looking at the flowers and the insects they attract. Apart from a pond (which is even better), creating a small wild flower meadow (or a big one if you have room) is one of the best ways of attracting wildlife to a garden.

I expect the meadow to continue to develop over the years. Once established it requires very little maintenance, other than a cut at the end of summer with a pair of shears, removing the cuttings after a couple of days. Removing the cuttings keeps the soil fertility low, which is especially important on heavier soils, otherwise coarser grasses and vigorous weeds can become established. Last year I cut half the meadow but left the other half as shelter for hibernating invertebrates and frogs, and because the dead heads of the Wild Carrots were so lovely.

On our allotment (also on sandy soil) we established a much larger wildflower meadow over ten years ago. This supports insects such as the Six-spot Burnet moth and Long-winged Coneheads. It also has a self-supporting population of Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus minor), which is a hemiparasite on grasses and restricts their vigour. I tried to establish Yellow Rattle in the meadow in the garden in autumn 2014 but only a few plants grew last year. I will probably try again: if I do I will need to create some open spaces with bare soil within the meadow to encourage it to establish. I would need to sow the seed in autumn, as it needs a period of winter chill in order to germinate.

Yellow rattle in the meadow on the allotment, June 2016.

Ivy Broomrape, Orobanche hederae

Ivy Broomrape

Ivy Broomrape, Orobanche hederae

Earlier this year I wrote about Purple Broomrape, Orobanche purpurea. Last month, while walking on the south coast of the Isle of Wight, I encountered its relative Orobanche hederae, the Ivy Broomrape for the first time.

Ivy Broomrape has been recorded in a couple of 10km squares in Norfolk, but it is more commonly found further south in England, where its host, Ivy (Hedera helix, particularly subspecies hibernica) grows. Orobanche hederae grows on the roots of Ivy and is a holo-parasite, utterly dependent on its host for food.

I found my plants on the cliffs where Ivy was growing: it is also found in rocky woods, hedge banks and quarries where its host is present.

Ivy Broomrape’s flowers are dull cream with a tinge of reddish purple towards the end. The plant flowers from May to July. There are some good photographs of the plant on the UK Wildflowers, English Wild Flowers: A Seasonal Guide and Nature Spot websites.

Ribwort Plantain, Plantago lanceolata

Ribwort Plantain

Ribwort Plantain, Plantago lanceolata, growing on sea cliffs, Isle of Wight

This month I haven’t had much time to update this blog, but today is cold and damp and I have a chance to stop and look back over the last month. One of May’s highlights was a week’s trip to the Isle of Wight, where there were lots of interesting wild flowers: Spring Gentian, Hoary Stock, Fairy Flax, Kidney Vetch, Bird’s-foot Trefoil, Thrift, Subterranean Clover, Rock Rose, Spring Beauty, Crosswort and Ivy Broomrape, some of which I will probably write about in future posts. But today I have chosen a very common plant to write about: Ribwort Plantain, Plantago lanceolata.

Ribwort is a perennial plant which has a rosette of spear-shaped leaves, from which grow short stems topped with compact heads of flowers with protruding, white stamens. The flowers are produced from April to August and are pollinated by the wind, beetles, flies and bees. The plant is pretty but quite subtle and is not always appreciated as much as it should be.

Ribwort is widespread in the British Isles, where it grows in lowland meadows and pastures and in upland grasslands. It can be found on disturbed ground on roadsides and river banks, in cultivated and waste ground, in lawns (where it can survive mowing and some will call it a “weed”) and on walls. Ribwort is tolerant of salt spray and grows by the seaside in sand dunes and on cliffs. Inland, it is found in the hills and on rock ledges and crevices, up to 845 metres above sea level on Great Dun Fell in Westmorland. It is also found in the rest of Europe and in North Africa and the Middle East, where it is native, and as an introduced plant in other parts of the world, including the United States, Australia and New Zealand, and parts of Asia and Africa. Because Plantago lanceolata likes disturbed ground, the presence of Ribwort pollen can be used as evidence for early agriculture.

Ribwort’s name comes from its narrow, ribbed lanceolate leaves, with their parallel veins. Other names include English Plantain, Narrowleaf Plantain, Black Plantain, Ribgrass, Tinker-tailor Grass, Windles and (listed in Flora Britannica) Fighting Cocks, Short Bobs, Soldiers and Sailors, Black Jacks, Hard-heads, Carl Doddies, Fire-weed and Fire-leaf. The latter two names come from the belief that dried Plantain leaves can set haystacks alight.

Ribwort is a member of the family Plantaginaceae. When I did Botany at university, this was a small family but the Plantaginaceae now includes what I always called the Scrophulariaceae (Figwort family), including some familiar and colourful flowers such as the Foxglove (Digitalis), Toadflaxes (Linaria), Speedwells (Veronica) and even the subject of my PhD thesis, the Snapdragon Antirrhinum majus. Who would have predicted that?

Ribwort was used in children’s games such as Soldiers (winding the stem around itself just below the head and pulling it tight to catapult the head) and a game known as Dongers (in Kent) or Carl Doddies (in Scotland), where the plantain heads were used like a conker on a string to hit an opponent’s plantain head. (More details are given in Flora Britannica.) No batteries required!

We have Ribwort in our small wildflower mini-meadows on the allotment and in our back garden. Ribwort is often found in wildflower seed mixtures and is one of the first species to become established. In both our “meadows” Ribwort was very numerous in the first couple of years, but as other species have become established it moved to the edges as older plants died off and were replaced by their offspring, and on the allotment it grows along the grass path between plots, where I am happy for it to remain. Ribwort’s seeds contain a water retaining “gel” that allow them to germinate in dry soils. This gel allows seeds to stick to animals and machinery, aiding their dispersal. The seed can also remain dormant for 50 – 60 years in soil if the growing conditions aren’t right.

Ribwort leaves are edible but can be bitter. Older leaves are very fibrous and in his book “Around The World In 80 Plants” Stephen Barstow recommends using the youngest leaves in a mixed salad and advises boiling older leaves before eating. The closely related Buck’s-horn Plantain, Plantago coronopus, is sometimes cultivated and both Stephen Barstow and Joy Larkcom suggest growing it. Ribwort seeds taste nutty and can be made into a flour and the buds prior to flowering are moist and crunchy and have been described as tasting like mushrooms.

The Plants For A Future and Phytology websites both list a range of medicinal uses for the plant, including as a treatment for coughs (because of the mucilage the plant contains) and wounds (as it staunches blood flow and has antbacterial properties). Ear infections and bladder complaints can also be treated with the plant. But beware – there can be side effects. The plant can be used for its fibre too, and to make gold and brown dyes.

Ribwort is eaten by a range of insects but slugs and snails don’t like it. I’m writing about Ribwort now because this is the food plant of one of Britain’s rarest butterflies, the Glanville Fritillary (Melitaea cinxia), which is mostly restricted to the Isle of Wight and the Channel Islands. When we visited the Isle of Wight in mid May, the butterfly was on the wing, mostly on the sea cliffs where Ribwort was growing. If we had visited earlier in the year, we might have seen its very handsome caterpillars feeding on the plant. The butterfly is named after Lady Eleanor Glanville, who discovered the species in Lincolnshire in the 1690s.

Glanville Fritillaries

Glanville Fritillaries mating. (Photo by Vanna Bartlett.)