Tuesday 16 October 2018

Tossing their heads in sprightly dance

COUNTRY MATTERS JOE KENNEDY

ON the day of a country funeral, the pendulous flower bells of scarlet and purple were noticed in an after-glance to have revealed themselves dancing from beneath their green cloaks, overnight it seemed, on the least expected of the new growths from transplanted cuttings.

More remarkably, in another part of the country, a relative of the deceased awoke to the overpowering perfume of freesia, the favourite flower of the departed, an inexplicable phenomenon, but, nevertheless, like the emergence of the belled fuchsia, stimulants to uplift the spirit at a time of melancholy.

This fuchsia had come from the wild lanes of Munster where it is profuse. It and others were from a protective hedge that had forced its way through an old dry-stone wall aeons before.

The wall was a home to wrens who found safety in old crevices, and to a robin family that came to a cottage window for crumbs. Moths were plentiful also, and once, when one was found exhausted in a tray of rain and brought into the house to a sunlit window sill, 14 tiny eggs were found behind its corpse next day in a legacy of defiance.

The cuttings of fuchsia magellanica were established in a pot of compost and earth gradually over late autumn and into the new year; six cuttings appeared strong enough to plant out. But the one that flowered first on a day of sadness was the least expected, being somewhat overwhelmed by a rapidly expanding elder on one side and a vigorous sea buckthorn on the other.

In this country, fuchsia is everywhere, but more especially in the south and west, where the lanes and banks have been thick with hanging scarlet all summer long. This is a wild one, originally from Chile or Peru or the Falkland Islands, but there are many variants and cultivars propagated by botanists, smallish bushy plants not given to fast expansion in suburban gardens.

Breeding has been going on for a couple of centuries and now it is reckoned there are more than 8,000 hybrids and cultivars. The entomologist Norman Hicken says that the best-known species here, magellanica, is a Falklander, while another Irish resident, gracilis, is a Mexican.

The English gardener and writer Monty Don says that the plant is named after Leonhart Fuchs, a 16th-century German botanist, although he did not discover it. As in the case of the buddleja, wild and profuse in Ireland, the fuchsia was first brought to the attention of European plant enthusiasts by a French Catholic priest named Plumier, who found it in the Dominican Republic in 1695.

Although he lost his plants on the journey home, he published drawings in 1703, but it took 80 more years for the first plants to reach Kew Gardens in London. These were propagated in hot houses and by enthusiasts in similar controlled environments until, eventually, magellanica, the sturdy one, found its way into the open countryside and spread all over these islands.

It is particularly popular on the Isle of Man, where the residents feel it should be honoured as the national flower. Munster and Connacht folk would feel they have just as strong a claim.

And how many people have childhood memories of sucking the flowers for nectar? After the perfume there is the mild sweetness, which is what the bee seeks from the red ballet dancers who bring such beauty and comfort to the Irish landscape.

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