Tuesday 22 October 2019

Country Matters: The wall-vaulting star of the season


Joe Kennedy

A main thoroughfare in west Dublin, where residents will tell you they have been living with wafting dust and trucking traffic of a building development for four years, is not a place where one might see an exotic flower waving its fiery blooms.

But nature is resilient and may be found fighting its corner. I picked up acorns at a bus stop here; further on chestnuts were waiting to drop for passers-by; and on a side-street a footpath was strewn with spiked balls of Turkish hazel, or 'Constantinoples' - produce of a municipal planting project of the last century. And in the front garden of a redbrick house, built circa 1900, there were the spiky leaves of a ganging orange-flowered plant - widely dispersed in the ditches and roadsides of Munster but a rare sight in the east.

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This is montbretia (Crocosmia X crocosmiiflora) of which I have clear memory - a path to a lighthouse in the south, montbretia running on endlessly on both sides of the road in a fiery mass thick as a pine plantation, shot through with honeysuckle and the scarlet bells of fuchsia.

I know nothing of the origins of the Dublin soldier, but montbretia is a traveller and a wall-vaulter from the great gardens of Victorian yesteryear. In the south it has scattered its orange clusters, often far from places of habitation, to bring colourful edges to country roads. Montbretia has flourished so confidently in unexpected places as to suggest post-glacial origins, but it is a new breed and did not exist until the 1870s in southern Africa. The blazing eye-catcher is the result of a botanical cross-fertilisation.

In South Africa, I am told, it is virtually unknown outside formal garden cultivation. But it appears to have reached the markets of Parisian plant specialists and to have been chosen by merchants buying for the Big House gardens of Victorian times. Richard Fitter (in Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland) says the plant is a "man-made hybrid from France" while Richard Mabey (in Flora Britannica) illustrates its African origins. Perhaps the first corms that reached Ireland came from London nurserymen?

The 19th Century was a glorious period of plant-collecting by military and administrative enthusiasts in the far-flung corners of the empire. At least two of these were Irishmen - Capt Madden from Kilkenny, and a civil servant in India, Michael Pakenham Edgeworth from Longford - both credited with shipping home the first samples of buddleja (crispa and davidii) from the Himalayas. The commercially-sourced montbretia, true to its springbok origins, soared over walls and colonised swathes of Irish countryside.

Montbretia's funnel-shaped flowers flare widely into stars standing on two-foot high stands of sword-like leaves with glorious names like Bressington Blaze (orange red), Emberglow (yellow orange), Spitfire (fiery orange) and Vulcan. Montbretia, flourishing amid building dust, awaits the touch of a poet.

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