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Plants on railway embankments


by James Alexander-Sinclair

One of the best things about taking the train is being able to gaze, semi-comatose, through the window at back gardens whizzing by at 70mph...


Weeds growing over a railway signI'm sitting on a train as I write this, something I do more frequently than I used to, in an effort to cut back on the number of miles I drive each year.

One of the best things about taking the train is being able to gaze, semi-comatose, through the window at back gardens whizzing by at 70mph. It's also always interesting to see which plants flourish in the no-man's-land of railway embankments.

At this time of year there's a dense covering, largely undisturbed by man (apart from the occasional maintenance team and trespasser), which provides a habitat for wildlife. In more urban areas there are escapees from people's gardens - for example on the route to London from my house there's a great swathe of trackside covered with Fallopia baldschuanicum. This is a very vigorous climber, better known as Russian vine or mile-a-minute. Only the very brave will plant this in a small garden as, although it's undoubtedly attractive and flowers for a long time, it has an unquenchable curiosity. Many years ago I used to maintain a very small garden in south London where somebody had planted one. It had wandered off along the chain link back fence and had colonised every garden for about fifty yards. It was so thick that I could safely walk along it, but nobody wanted to get rid of it as the view beyond was of the back of an old and scabby warehouse. It was an ideal (if lucky) example of being the right plant in the right place.

More usually, however, railway tracks provide a haven for wild flowers, self seeders and weeds. Rosebay willowherb, tangles of flowering bindweed, brambles and bright-yellow ragwort. Profligate trees like ash and, in particular, sycamore crop up and create shady areas with the wrong sort of leaves that cause train operators so much trouble in autumn. Most prominent at the moment are great stands of stiff-limbed and mauve-flowered buddlejas.

Buddleja davidii was brought over from China and named after the French naturalist Pere Armand David (the buddleja bit comes from Essex botanist Adam Buddle). It thrives in dry stony areas, so seeds happily in the rubble and poor ground around railways. Notably, it also colonised bomb sites around the country after the last war; it can easily thrive in narrow crevices as well as well-maintained borders.

There's a host of fabulous cultivars of B. davidii. Among my favourites are B. davidii 'Royal Red' and B. davidii 'White Cloud'. They'll all grow to the height of about 4m and will attract clouds of butterflies.



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Gardeners' World Web User 07/10/2008 at 18:13

I used to enjoy part of my commute to work; the embankments would hold a host of wildlife. Some days I may see a family of fox cubs at play, another the flash of a jay's wing or woodpecker.

More recently I went on a longer train journey and was interested to see how the buddleia colours vary. I had always assumed that the bog standard "railway" buddleia was a mauve colour, but along this journey I noticed various shades of deep blue/purple, deep red/purple, and through to the pale mauve that I had expected. One plant had the most magnificent panicles of flowers, easily 18 inches long each, and worthy of a place in any buddleia competition. I assume all these are escapees from cultivated varieties in peoples' gardens, but with the cross breeding going on between them there must be some amazing plants waiting to be discovered.

Gardeners' World Web User 10/10/2008 at 19:46

You are absolutely right, all sorts of unauthorised cross breeding goes on in these little undisturbed wildernesses. Some friends of mine who spend time hunting for new plants abroad do a fair bit of their searching on roadsides and embankments.

Gardeners' World Web User 25/02/2009 at 23:04

THANKS FOR THE INFO ON BUDALEIA. I HAVE PURPLE ONES USUALLY BECAUSE THEY SEEM TO BE THE HARDIEST IN EASTERN ONTARIO TWO YEARS I TOOK A CHANCE AND PLANTED A YELLOW ONE. IT GREW REALLY HUGE IN IT'S SECOND YEAR AND WHILE A BIT SPARSE AND WITH A TENDENCY FOR PART OF THE FLOWER TO BROWN WHILE OTHER PARTS COME TO BLOOM, IT LOOK'S GREAT TO ME. TWO DRIVEWAYS SURROUND THIS FRONT FLOWER BED AND A PRIVATE DRIVE SO THREE SIDES. SNOW COVER IS ABUNDANT WITH IT COMING FROM THREE SIDES AN I BELIEVE IT'LL SURVIVE AGAIN. IS IT JUST ME OR MY CLIMATE. THE PLANTS DO SEEM SHORT LIVED, SAY THREE YEARS. CUTTING BACK IS ALWAYS NECESSARY IN THE SPRING AND I MEAN JUST ABOUT EVERYTHING. IT PERENNIALIZES SO YOU GET SMALLER PLANTS USUALLY, BUT THE BRANCHES WILL SURVIVE UP INTO THE SNOW COVER I FIND. JUST THOUGHT I'D LET ANYONE WHO MIGHT FIND IT INTERSTING TO KNOW WELL YOU KNOW - KNOW - RAVEN VAN LEISHOUT

Gardeners' World Web User 02/03/2009 at 15:45

Thanks, raven. In Britain it is best to cut most Buddleia back very hard in the Spring. They are capable of putting on 6-8 feet of growth in a season.

Gardeners' World Web User 28/11/2011 at 18:36

Back in 1960's my parents hired a boat on the river Shannon, Ireland for holiday at Easter time. The meadows as we sailed along were just the most beautiful site you could ever see, just overflowing with wild flowers. Some say in later years they were 'improved' by drainage and herbicides! Let's hope some are still there.