PLANT OF THE WEEK #86: Buddleja alternifolia

In one of the lockdowns last year (can’t recall which.  Who can?) I cut down a long row of past-their-use-by-date Acacia retinodes along my northern boundary.  That left a huge, deep bed of really crappy clay soil in which to explore some entirely new form of planting.  Well, new to me.

I’d come up with a scheme inspired by images in Olivier Fillipi’s sensational book ‘Bringing the Mediterranean into your Garden’.  You know the kind of thing – a base layer of clipped evergreens, maybe with a grass or two for contrast, all floated over by a light canopy of twisted, tortured, trunky evergreen trees.

Somewhere in that process I was offered a self-layered piece of a friend’s Buddleja alternifolia.  I’ve known and loved this shrub for years, but have never owned one.   Finally having a place to put one, the offer was met with an enthusistic ‘yes, please!’.

Buddleja alternifolia (in the background, behind Kolkwitzia) in Dame Elisabeth Murdoch’s garden, Cruden Farm

As is the way with layered pieces, what was handed over wasn’t particularly promising – a leafless twig (the shrub is deciduous, so that wasn’t overly ominous) with a thread of root looking like it’d be torn off any second by the lump of soil on which it had a very tenuous grip.  It went it in the ground with the kind of care you lavish on something that you suspect will get no further attention, then ignored it.

Now about six months later it’s a super-strong looking shrub 800mm tall and 1600mm wide, splaying out sideways with elegant, willowy branches.

Buddlejas alternifolia is the closest thing that the Buddleja genus has to a front-runner shrub.  They’re mostly fast, easy to grow and phenomenally generous in bloom. But they lack the x factor – the scourge of many a fast growing tree or shrub. 

B. alternifolia somehow escapes the family scourge.  Its name derives from its alternate foliage, which is also distinct from the rest of the family (whose leaves are all opposite), but otherwise has to be the least interesting and appealing thing to point out in the naming of such a beautiful shrub. It’s a truly gorgeous thing in bloom – as delicate and elegant as any shrub you can think of, largely due to its long, tapering, super-slender flowerheads with which the whole shrub is fountain-draped in mid to late spring.

Buddleja alternifolia at Barewood, in NZ

Its elegance belies its true toughness.  David Glenn at Lambley nursery states that he never waters his specimen (which is of the silver-leafed form, Buddleja alternifolia ‘Argentea’).  I sure don’t intend watering mine.  You mostly see them in gardens at about 2m x 2m, but this is often maintained by regular pruning at the time they’re deadheaded.  Without pruning they’re apparently capable of getting much larger.

The unfortunate destiny of most choice shrubs is to be added to a collection of choice shrubs, in a pretty and jolly mix of one-of-this-and-one-of-that.  What I’d really love to see is Buddleja alternifolia used in a planting scheme, echoing repeatedly through a bigger idea, or even great swathes of it, interlocking with something complementary in colour and form.

Must get on to that.

The Gardenist’s Ash Knop and the owner of Barewood, Carolyn Ferraby, lingering in conversation near the Buddleja alternifolia. Why not come to NZ with Ash and me sometime? We’re headed there again in November (tour booked out), and then again next April. Check the tours and events page for more details.

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