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Hackney weed

Rachel Whiteread's golden foliage at the Whitechapel Gallery.

My local swimming pool had to overcome two big nuisances to become, once again, the cheery place for an outdoor dip (whatever the weather). In the summer of 1997, 300 leaflets were circulated around the east London borough of Hackney calling on volunteers to help “hack down the Buddleia Jungle that is now strangling the Pool”. Over three weekends hundreds of London Fields locals dug and shovelled, swept and shredded – filling multiple skips, they’d have you know – to reveal, under a decade’s worth of rubbish and weeds, the capital’s only Olympic-sized lido.

By August the following year squatters had moved in, setting up camp in the changing rooms and having raves in the deep end. And the buddleia never truly left; remaining root stumps regrew and the gentle green fronds made their home again alongside and among empty cans. That plant, known colloquially (and when it resides in a garden) as the butterfly bush, is a common sight all over the east of the capital.

Introduced to the UK from China in 1890, it was some of the first greenery to grow up in bomb sites following the Blitz – leading  the Museum of London to call it the city’s most iconic plant. The wind-borne seeds will grow happily out of any crack, typically peaking, then reaching and before long waving out of canal walls, rail embankments and disused building  facades. The endless redevelopment of east London neighbourhoods has seen buddleia largely vanish from many of these public spots (Shoreditch hosts pop-up shops rather than shrubs; the lido is a treat for local bathers once again) but it still holds a special significance to the area.

And the plant is now being celebrated in a wholly lasting way by a long-term resident. In a new artwork – her first permanent public commission in the UK – Rachel Whiteread has nodded to what she dubs “Hackney weed” in a frieze addition to the Whitechapel Gallery. It’s a gorgeous thing of many parts: terracotta window reliefs (characteristic of the Turner Prize winning-artist) are surrounded by golden tendrils and leaves in the previously empty 8 by 15-metre space above the entrance archway. There may never be butterflies up there – but there’ll be no beer cans, either.

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s most dangerous leader