Sunday 15 December 2019

Country Matters: Blooms now await the butterflies

Country Matters

Summer butterfly
Summer butterfly

Joe Kenedy

THE rain and heat have advanced the fragrant lilac blooms of the butterfly bush to a perfumed pinnacle by a couple of weeks so that this growth of waste lots and railway lines now expectantly awaits colouful brides to its altars.

There are no painted ladies, red admirals or small tortoiseshells so far to flutter in the nectar feast of buddlja davidii . Insects, especially bees, have it all to themselves and, too soon, pale and browned by the sun, its perfume almost expunged, it will send its seeds to whatever crevice will provide a protective womb. In the meantime, we may watch and pray for the butterflies.

The buddlja has had an interesting history from its origins in the Himalayas, and Irishmen have played historic roles.

It got its Linnaean classification from a Basque missionary, Pere David, who came upon the plant in the mountains along the China-Tibet borders in 1869.

A couple of Irishmen had found it 20 years earlier but it took until the 1880s before some specimens were grown in a Paris plant nursery.

It is probable that the first buddleja to be grown in Ireland was in the 1840s in a walled garden at Edgewardstown, County Longford , ancestral home of the novelist Maria Edgeworth, author of Castle Rackrent.

Her half-brother, Michael Pakenham, had sent home seeds from the Tibetan hill country where he was a British colonial official.

Pakenham's friend, a Bengal Lancers' officer, Major Edward Madden from Kilkenny, also sent buddlja samples to the Botanic Gardens in Dublin from Simla and Almorah. These were named crispa with a fragrant orange or golden eye.

Madden wrote from Snowy Ridge in 1847: "Neither fatigue, danger nor admiration of the stupendous and sublime scenery prevented my gathering a few seeds and specimen parcels."

Two packets arrived at Glasnevin in January 1848 containing the crispa and a white-flowered rhododendron which is named after him.

The naturalist Christopher Moriarty has drawn attention to another Irishman, Augustine Henry (1857-1930), who found the plant while working for the Chinese customs service and sent home samples.

Madden appears to have been a serious botanist, using the services of three porters - who were "changed every day" - to carry his stuff.

He also wrote lengthy instructions about necessary supplies (including baked biscuits, tin utensils, hermetically sealed soups and "a liberal allowance of beer, wine and brandy in stone bottles") for those who wished to follow after.

Madden retired from the army in 1850, became president of Edinburgh Botanical Society and left a legacy of a number of plant species bearing his name.

The prolific buddlja bushes seen today along railway embankments and urban waysides did not all blow in as seeds from Longford or Glasnevin but are probably descended from escaped nursery stock marketed from London more than 100 years ago.

And these growths don't contain any worrying hidden dangers such as those along some rivers in China where travellers were warned that the buddlja thickets provided "famous harbourage" for tigers!

Sunday Independent

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