PLANT OF THE WEEK #63: Buddleja salviifolia

I was both delighted and kind of annoyed, in equal measure, when I visited the Botanic Gardens in Melbourne a couple of weeks ago and found Buddleja salviifolia in bloom.  I was delighted because it’s a highly perfumed shrub that blooms in mid winter, and one can’t help but be grateful for these small compensatory mercies in a climate like ours.

The annoyance (slight and passing) arose from finding it in bloom this early in Melbourne, when mine in Woodend doesn’t tend to flower until spring, by which time I’m over it.  And not only over it, but I’m kind of critical and censorious, and can’t help frankly communicating to it that a shrub as modest and homely as it is really needs to boost its point score by flowering well before anything else – that by the time spring comes around, I’ve got better options.

But back to its benefits.  Buddleja salviifolia is evergreen, salvia-like in colour and leaf form (hence the name, obviously), phenomenally drought tolerant, and a trouble-free, reliable ‘early’ bloomer (early in the seasonal sense).  It’s homeliness is a product of its modest leaf colouring, which, while interesting enough up close, having a rich green upper side and nearly white under side, can appear dry and dusty in a drought year when there’s no supplementary water available. And the flowers aren’t at all showy, being such a pale mauve that you’d probably never give them space but for the perfume they emit, and the time of year they do so.  By shrub standards it’s pretty big, at about 3m in height and spread creating a vase-like shape, but for reasons discussed in last weeks plant of the week, its cane-like growth means that once it reaches full height, it simply won’t get any bigger.  

It’s hard to stress how hugely advantageous this is.  The majority of shrubs grow cumulatively from tip growth, and simply get bigger and bigger over time, often opening up beneath.  That’s not the case with these cane growers.  And that makes them perfect for screening.  As long as their ultimate height is the height you need for privacy, or to block out an ugly view, or as windbreak (and you wouldn’t think to grow them otherwise, as you can’t manipulate their height), then they need no care to maintain them at that height.

This is particularly handy in the case of Buddlja salviifolia, as it’s homeliness is such that you wouldn’t give it pride of place.  It’s one of those plants that best lurks in the depths of a shrubbery or windbreak planting, then delights you with it’s (slightly soapy, but as stated last week, I’m no scent-snob) perfume on the air, before you’re even aware of it coming into flower. 

The only maintenance from which it will visually benefit (and this is optional) is the removal of old, tired canes.  In this case, you can fuss over which to remove and which to retain, or you can take a chain saw to the whole plant, and let it renew itself entirely from the base.  Personally, I’d rather take the time to remove about 1/4 of the canes each year, so that it stays fresh, but I understand that that takes a degree of confidence many home gardeners don’t have.

All things considered, I give Buddleja salviifolia 6.5 stars our of 10.  They’re mostly work-horse points, boosted by winter perfume.

How many do you give it?

Discussion

  1. I’d give mine a 10 for it’s resilience here in southern Adelaide. Every autumn I cut back all but a few canes for flowering but mainly to let light into the home. By summer, it provides wonderful shade again. Sure, it would be more logical to plant something deciduous but we have accepted this pre-existing plant and it has responded to our needs for over 10 years. Very lime and drought tolerant.

  2. I was amused and pleasantly surprised to see what your ‘workhorse’ is, Michael, for it is one of only three or four shrubs endemic to the area at Sequoia Gardens! There its leaves can look sad by the end of the season after playing a vital role in the food chain, and as often as not the flowers don’t even qualify as pale mauve. They are dirty white. However I found and propagated too good forms, one a stronger lilac and one a pale blue. Still not spectacular, but very satisfying. As you say though, their. scent is their greatest asset and the reason I intend to plant it here on the Cape Coast. At the first hint of warmer weather, usually around the first week of August, you will suddenly catch its honeyed scent on the air, and it is as though the temperature rises 5 degrees and your sluggish heart speeds up. It is one of the great thrills of the gardening year, the sign that spring can not be far off.

    1. For those not familiar with me, Sequoia Gardens is in the high mountains of Limpopo, South Africa, and mostly has subzero night temps in winter but relatively sunny warm days. Spring and autumn are our hottest times, as in an average year. the summer months include days of mist and rain.

  3. As for star rating I will give it , for purely emotional reasons, a 10 on the farm, and for nostalgic reasons an 8 here in the Cape

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