Dilemmas of dealing with invasive species
The rest of nature, too, revels in heat and light. The fragrance of coumarin from new-mown hay, in fields restored to meadows once again, mixes with the heady scent of honeysuckle, frothing in pink and cream across the fuchsia hedges of the west. Our exotic shrubberies have really come into their own: not for years have the spiky palisades of New Zealand flax hoisted such splendid masts of blossom, their sheaths of gold and purple bursting into flames of crimson flowers, the anthers tipped with vivid orange pollen.
Phormium tenax is one of those exotically “architectural” plants whose lateral growth can, at length, seem exponential. Ours, a pink-washed hybrid bought in a pot a couple of decades ago, must now be hacked back every few months to allow swift passage in and out to postman Dave. Elsewhere along the coast, Phormium is a common windbreak of farmhouse shelter belts, defying the saltiest of gales. Since these must date from long before the first Mayo garden centre, one can only conjecture on a neighbourly traffic of offsets from some distant estate.
Botanically a giant relative of the day lily, the plant’s natural habitat Down Under is in lowland swamps, which makes its success along Ireland’s coastal hillsides a little strange. But at least, even uncorseted, it stays more or less where it’s put, unlike another swampy triffid in the west, the equally “architectural” but invasive gunnera, from South America, that waves great umbrellas rather than swords.
While the fibres of New Zealand flax may never find in Ireland the myriad uses of its native history (now, even surfboards), it does make occasional offerings to our wildlife. At home, and called the harakeke, its generous supply of nectar is food for the tui, a glossy and voluble bird (“the nightingale of New Zealand”) whose beak nicely matches the curve of the flax’s flowers. Ireland’s birds might be thought to lack both an interest in nectar and the right sort of beak. Yet, earlier this month, a Dublin reader on a visit to Achill, Frank Barton, saw a flock of some 20 young starlings busy at the flax blossom, their foreheads brightly dusted with the orange pollen. He thought the curve of their beaks “ideal for extracting nectar, some of which was spilled in the jostling and highlighted by the sunshine.” This recalled past reports from Wicklow, both of starlings and a great tit, in similar behaviour. So we do have birds to match the tui in fertilising viable seeds. The plant’s long pods hold hundreds and release them into the wind.