For the love of fuchsia

Outdoor Living

PRETTY IMPORT A familiar roadside sight, Fuchsia was first brought to Ireland by Victorian plant collectors.

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

Around Mulranny, as elsewhere, the hedgerows are the red of fuchsia. Seen from the windows of a speeding car they are unremarkable; only when we stop to inspect them we can fully appreciate their beauty. So here we are, in a moment of sun, the heat of which causes slender buds to swell and burst, the red petals parting to reveal underparts of soft purple and, to the nose, a warm yet subtle fragrance.
At least I imagine it there, though others are quick to deny any attractive scent at all.
“It smells green,” says one, “and sappy.”
These fuchsia hedges are no more Irish than I am, I say. My observation is immediately challenged, and so we descend into that age-old argument of ethnicity, of who really belongs and who has the right to own land.
“Who was here first?” I ask.
The first farmers arrived 4,000 years ago, either from Spain or India, or both. Before that, we are told, Ireland was probably home to hunter-gatherer Stone Age tribes who went where they wanted whenever they would. They fished for salmon and trout and hunted in the forest for deer, wild boar and maybe even brown bears.
History has a way of repeating itself. Mesolithic or Middle stone age nomads were displaced by Neolithic or New stone age settlers. Year on year, new people arrived as international trade became established and families spread out to fill the earth. Land came to be partitioned. Stone walls, earthen banks and timbered ramparts appeared as people began to feel the need to defend their property and crops, not just against wild animals, but also against their neighbours.
Who else laid claim to Ireland? There have been many. The most notorious were the British landlords with their miserable rule, which was merely a continuation of what went before, though in a different guise. There is no denying the cruelty of man to his own kind. It defies natural thought and is abhorrent to the majority, at least in moments of clarity. Yet still we would fight for the right to keep what our forefathers stole.
The fuchsia came to Ireland by the hand of Victorian plant collectors, landlords who wished to beautify their estates and sent plant hunters to the four corners of the earth to achieve that end. It wasn’t long before garden escapees began to colonise the wild, and now we have whole hedgerows filled with these pretty red and purple flowers from July until the first frost finally puts them to bed.
It was French monk and botanist Charles Plumier who first ‘discovered’ fuchsia on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola around the year 1696 (although we can probably accept that the locals already knew it was there) and named it after the celebrated German herbalist Leonhart Fuchs. Besides being very colourful, fuchsia is easily grown from cuttings and quickly became very popular.
Now we have it here, and in such quantity that is dominates parts of the landscape, having overgrown or pushed aside less vigorous native plants.
Plumier was following in the footsteps of Christopher Columbus and other early explorers. His trips to the South Atlantic came at a time the native peoples there were being sorely mistreated by Europeans searching for gold and other desirable commodities. The Spanish, the French, the Dutch and the British were essentially at war with each other as they vied for dominance of so many beautiful Caribbean islands.
It is hard to place our peace-loving botanical artist in the midst of the violent suppression of indigenous communities, yet there he was, the so-called ‘King’s Botanist’, drawing, sketching, writing, and collecting.
I should like to see the fuchsia wild in its homeland. Here, it’s flowers are a rich source of nectar for many insects and especially for bees and wasps. I saw my first hummingbird hawk-moth feeding from fuchsia flowers at Glenisland (and initially mistook it for a hummingbird, as many others have done!).
The hummingbird hawk moth is an irregular summer visitor that is gradually expanding its range north and west. While still unusual in Mayo, small numbers will survive mild winters in Britain. Every summer more arrive from southern Europe. Watch out for them now, especially along those splendid fuchsia hedges.
Those flowers are edible, by the way, as are the berries that succeed them. In a warmer climate they might be more sweet than insipid. We shall make do.