Saturday 21 April 2018

Lonely vigil for butterfly bush

THE first "butterfly bush" to grow in Ireland probably appeared in a walled garden of a country house at Edgeworthstown, Co Longford, the ancestral home of the novelist Maria Edgeworth, author of Castle Rackrent, in the early 1840s.

Her brother, Michael Packenham Edgeworth, had sent home the seeds in a parcel of botanical specimens from the Tibetan hill country where he worked for the British colonial service. Other seeds and plants arrived much later from separate sources and spread and multiplied in the landscape, so that today the bush, Buddleja davidii, is a vagrant of urban waysides and derelict sites.

But as for butterflies, alas, there have been few, if any survivors in this year of the deluge to feast on the nectar of its fragrant, four-petalled flowers, now at the pinnacle of its attractiveness.

Buddleja is the butterfly magnet par excellence. Like expectant guests at a great banquet the perfumed blossoms have trembled in vain for appreciation. There were no painted ladies, small tortoiseshells, red admirals or even humble cabbage whites arriving to enjoy the offerings, apart from a few honey and bumble bees and an occasional wasp.

Soon enough now, the panicled lilac, pale, with its perfume almost expunged, will send seeds to whatever crevice will provide a protective womb -- old walls, crumbling sites, the long embankments of canal and railway.

This urban common bush growth, which also has more sophisticated botanical cultivars, is named for a Basque priest, Pere David, who found it in China, reputedly in 1849.

But a couple of Irishmen were collecting specimens a few years earlier in the same mountainous country. Packenham, and his pal, Major Edward Madden of the Bengal Lancers, were full of the remarkable enthusiasm that gripped Victorian plant collectors stationed in the outposts of empire. In 1848, Madden sent buddleja samples, to be named crispa, with a fragrant orange or golden eye, along with other species, to the Botanic Gardens in Dublin from the hill country of Simla and Almorah.

He wrote home excitedly to Kilkenny from Snowy Ridge: "Neither fatigue, danger nor admiration of the stupendous and sublime scenery prevented my gathering a few seeds and specimen parcels, the advance guard of a larger body which I will dispatch."

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

He had some practical advice for other erstwhile explorers, suggesting provinder lists that included hermetically sealed soups, sliced bread "baked into everlasting rusks" and, last but not least, "a liberal allowance of beer, wine and brandy", the latter to be safeguarded in stone bottles!

Today's wild buddleja probably does not have such romantic ancestry as Madden's and Packenham's parcels, being more likely descended from escapees from Big House nursery stock brought in from London near the end of the 19th Century.

There are those who see the plant as an invasive weed blighting the urban landscape but they should check on its pleasant perfume and consider how attractive its rich nectar must be to insect life. Meanwhile the butterfly bush awaits the hopeful return of its best customers next year, as, indeed, do we.

Sunday Independent

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