Oh, for the honeyed scents of late summer
T’S a big mistake to grow tender plants in an expensively heated glasshouse. Many years ago, I had a craze for Buddlejas. It wasn’t so much the popular B. davidii cultivars that I collected greedily—lovely and useful though they are—but other species and hybrids that seemed unusual and underesteemed. Most were half-hardy, so I grew them in a spacious glasshouse almost as large as my house. B. colvilei Kewensis was one of the best; its flowers were the size of a weigela’s and rich crimson in colour.
Then there were the two winterflowering beauties, graceful B. asiatica with pure-white, pendulous spikes and orange B. madagascariensis, which I so admired in Riviera gardens, plus a hybrid between them called Margaret Pike. Actually, it wasn’t as a good plant as either of its parents, but its flowers opened creamy-white and turned to orange as they aged.
B. auriculata had rather insignificant cream-coloured flowers, but their scent in November was wonderful. B. officinalis was also scented, but had rather larger, mauve flowers in late winter. And how I longed to grow the B. tubiflora whose long orange flowers I admired in a glasshouse at Wisley; many good plants were near-impossible to source before the annual Plant Finder (Dorling Kindersley) got under way in 1988.
The fragrance that all the best buddlejas exhale is strong,
Isweet and honeyed. On a mild January day, the first industrious bumblebees of the year would find their way into my glasshouse, busy themselves with pollen and nectar, then forget how to get out again. However, one winter —an exceptionally cold one when I was away in Tenerife—there was a blizzard, a power cut and a failure to reignite the heating. I returned to a cold house and a collection of dead buddlejas (and much else, too). I vowed never to have a heated glasshouse again; actually, I should have vowed never to run away when cold weather threatened.
Buddlejas are a ‘must’ for our new garden in the Itchen valley. I’ve brought B. loricata from our last garden—it came from Jamie Compton, who collected it in the Drakensberg. B. japonica has also come with us, largely because it’s now rather rare. Its long tubular flowers, grey outside and purple within, were a great favourite until I discovered B. lindleyana, which is a much better plant and suckers around agreeably, so that you always have pieces you can give away. Its only weakness is a tendency to let its leaves turn yellow and drop off just as it comes into flower.
My daughter Camilla had a row of B. alternifolia grown as great weeping standards, 15ft tall, in her chalky north Hampshire garden and I fancy them as a short avenue, supporting spring-flowering Clematis macropetala and late-summer Clematis viticella cultivars to extend the season of flower and show off their own beauty against the grey leaves of the buddlejas.
It’s worth looking again at B. davidii, whose seedlings flourish in the most miserable sites, such as railway sidings and motorway embankments. They also love our chalk soil. The Longstock nursery at Leckford in Hampshire has acquired a National Collection and bred some wonderful new cultivars.
However, the memory of those tender species in the days of my youth has begun to undermine my good sense. One of my plans, all those years ago, was to cross them with summer-flowering buddlejas in the hope of combining the best attributes of each. Imagine winter-flowering hybrids with all the hardiness of B. alternifolia or B. davidii hybrids carrying orange spikes like B. tubiflora. And imagine putting the large flowers and crimson colouring of Kewensis into buddlejas of any kind.
As a result, I’m thinking of starting once again, planting up a conservatory with all my old loves, preserving pollen in the fridge for several months (it keeps perfectly) and acting Cupid when the season is right. You never quite know what will come out of trying to breed new plants and the uncertainty is part of the excitement. It’s strange how often an old man’s thoughts turn to propagation.
‘I returned to a cold house and a collection of dead buddlejas
Charles Quest-ritson wrote the RHS Encyclopedia of Roses
Northumberland’s homage to Capability Brown
Like moths to a flame: Buddleja davidii is a proven butterfly magnet