If the Wild Atlantic Way ever needed a floral emblem, it would have to be the fuchsia: its vivid and elegant flowers decorate wayside hedges from Donegal to Cork. Autumn finds them still abundant, waiting on the first good gale to carpet high-hedged coastal roads with drifts of scarlet and purple.
An early French botanical monk, Charles Plumier, hunting new plants for Louis XIV, found this one in Hispaniola and named it in honour of a German botanist, Leonhard Fuchs, pronounced “fooks”. The name has been safely mangled on Anglo tongues, once producing “back to the fuchsia” as my favourite punning headline to this column.
From more than 100 species of fuchsia, the full and formal name for the cultivar that thrives in western Ireland is Fuchsia magellanica Riccartonii, blending origins in southern Chile with hybridisation in Scotland. Arriving in these islands around 1823, its rapid growth on frost-free land saw it flourish both in big house shrubbery and sheltering hedgerows on western farms.
Its easy growth from raw twigs rivals even that of the willow. My first planting of cabbage seedlings in the windswept earth of the acre was sheltered by little branches of fuchsia snapped off a handy hedge. Simply pushed into the ground, these quickly took root and grew to weave the first of a dozen windbreak hedges, dividing our bare quadrant of hillside for vegetables and hens.
But such is fuchsia’s rewilding vigour, I’ve now come to see it more as an invasive alien plant. It has taken over a once-delightful hollow where the hill stream cuts through a corner of the land. Its banks are now a barricade of fuchsia, proof against even a ratcheted lopper, while the stream runs invisibly beyond.
Garden centres offer F, magellanica as topping out at a couple of metres, but one garden on the Isle of Man has boasted a tunnel of it three times as high.
Kerry’s Valentia Island had a notable mound of it grown from one bush planted by the Knight of Kerry in 1854 on the windy heights of Glanleam. Blown flat to the ground, a branch of fuchsia will set new roots from its joints and crawl on. By 1870 the circumference of its thicket was approaching 120ft and by 1905 it had reached more than 290ft, which brought it to a cliff edge.
Dark brown or green, more than 8cm long and as fat as a cheroot, it has circular markings at one end that it inflates into ‘eyes’ when feeling threatened
On our acre, the trees we have planted eventually shaded out the fuchsia hedges round the hen run, leaving their branches remarkably tall and gaunt. The stems at the base were as thick as my thigh. I cut some as logs for the fire and found them a tough hardwood, oozing a wine-dark sap. There is a Donegal tweed suit the colour of fuchsia offered by a London tailor, but you might need some nerve to wear it.
Is fuchsia much use for wildlife? It offers late nectar to bumblebees fumbling the long stamens of the bells. And the odd cup of a nest left in a hedge in winter would fit any of the little birds glimpsed within its branches. But fuchsia’s notable offering is Ireland’s most dramatic caterpillar, that of the beautiful hawkmoth, Deilephila elpenor.
Called the elephant hawkmoth from the trunk-like appearance of its larvae, the bright pink and green moth lays single eggs on a variety of plants, including rosebay willow herb and bedstraws. But fuchsia remains the prime food plant of its caterpillar.
Dark brown or green, more than 8cm long and as fat as a cheroot, it has circular markings at one end that it inflates into “eyes” when feeling threatened. With numbers at a peak in August, it can be overwintered on fuchsia leaves in a jam jar to watch it develop as a chrysalis and produce the moth the following spring.
This partnership of moth and plant wins no credit for fuchsia from Jesmond Harding, the prominent Irish lepidopterist. In a blogged appeal for “responsible gardening”, he sees fuchsia as “out of control in parts of the west of Ireland” overwhelming native shrubs in hedges that include it.
His more absolute wrath, however, is reserved for montbretia, the naturalised South African hybrid whose thickets of brilliant orange trumpets shine out from many western waysides in late summer. It spreads by a profusion of underground corms producing clumps of sword-shaped leaves that suppress, says Harding, the native violets and vetches.
Dr Matthew Jebb, director of the National Botanic Gardens, has been quoted as thinking that montbretia “does no mischief at all on our roadsides”. But Harding urges its destruction as an invasive alien (it has been declared as one in Northern Ireland). Pull up its clumps and corms, he directs, and dispatch them to landfill.
Where, I suppose, they may soon come to spread a welcome blaze of colour across wastelands of alien rubbish.