A fuchsia is toppled

The fuchsia had to go. I thought something was wrong with it back in the spring when the spectacular annual profusion of crimson and purple pendulous flowers quickly became blackened and distorted and the shoots of bright green leaves on the arching boughs appeared horribly twisted and tainted. Throughout the summer the plant’s condition just got worse and worse. What could possibly be ailing it? My extensive collection of gardening and horticulture books only informed me that, although tender fuchsias can be prone to rust and weevils, hardy species such as this Fuchsia magellanica were “generally trouble-free”. Eventually I resorted to Google, and solved the mystery immediately. It was Aculops fuchsiae, the Fuchsia Gall Mite. What brazen gall!

From this…

…to this

The reason the books didn’t mention it was because these particular mites were unknown in the UK until 2007, and only got a proper foothold on the south coast of England as recently as 2012. It goes without saying that responsibility for the spread of the mite lies squarely with humans, going back to fuchsia’s 1697 introduction into Europe by French botanist Charles Plumier (1646-1704), who had noticed it on Hispaniola (today’s Dominican Republic and Haiti) while exploring the islands of the Caribbean. Plumier bestowed his discovery with a name honouring the famed German botanist Leonhart Fuchs (1501-1566). From that ostensibly innocent step, incremental errors have piled one upon the other as arrogant humanity has increasingly sought to bend the plant kingdom to its will, via the commercialisation and monetisation of gardening, the globalisation of trade, the mass movement of people and the heating of the climate, wreaking deeply unnatural havoc on nature to the point where we have arrived at today’s truly alarming tipping point where the fuchsia genus is just one among innumerable victims. Hence, in 2019, the Fuchsia Gall Mite, moving northwards with the rising planetary temperature, reached my Cardiff back garden. Botanists estimate that all fuchsias as far as their most northerly range in sheltered areas on the west coast of Scotland will be afflicted within a decade. Given that the infection is incurable and irreversible, this means the 300-year presence of this beautiful shrub in northern European gardens will shortly be over and the delightful naturalised hedges of dancing ballerinas in temperate zones along the Atlantic seaboard like Cornwall, Ireland and southern Wales will be no more.

The sap-sucking mites, just 0.2mm long and invisible to the naked eye, don’t kill fuchsia. That would be stupid, and only humans are thick enough to destroy the host biosphere that their lives depend upon. But they do turn the plant into such a hideous mess, drained of all the nectar and pollen insects need, that there is no option but to dig the poor distressed thing up and destroy it. Judging by its size, my specimen was at least 20 years old already when I moved into this hovel all of 14 years ago, and under my watch it had become a giant – around 8ft (2.5m) high and 10ft (3m) wide, which is as big as shrub fuchsias get outside their homelands of South and Central America. Wilfully ignoring the Royal Horticultural Society’s stern advice to cut it down to ground level every autumn, I had just let the fuchsia do its own thing and it duly grew into a dense hedge and much appreciated habitat for local birds. The branches were fat, cracked and woody and the root system was deep, complex and intertwined with the roots of neighbouring shrubs. So it was a pretty onerous task to remove it, requiring weeks of hacking, lopping, prising, tunnelling and crowbarring whenever the rain wasn’t too torrential, and the lugging of countless sacks of green waste to the Lamby Way corporation tip – where I know the guys so well they greet me at the gate with “Hi Dic, how’s the emphysema and have sales of A-Z of Cardiff topped 250 yet?”

A tall, gnarled hebe adjacent to the fuchsia suffered such collateral damage in the upheaval that it had to be dug up too, making the resident sparrows even more upset by all the disruption. What upset me most was the impact on insect life. Half of the world’s insect population has been lost since 1970 as a result of the destruction of nature and the use of pesticides and here I was contributing to the insect apocalypse that will ultimately lead to the extinction of humanity at the top of the food chain. To make some amends, whenever the rain eases slightly I have been busy planting the big vacant space with as many insect-friendly native Welsh plants as possible. Hellebore (hydyf du), sea holly (môr-gelyn), anemone (blodyn y gwynt) and cinquefoil (pumbys) have settled in already and others will join them in the spring. I’m hoping my lovely old fuchsia’s sad demise may improve this mini-environment in the long run, allowing greater species variety, letting in more light and air and encouraging even more insect life.

But there’s no denying it was a wrench to bid farewell to a plant so colourful it is one of the few, along with the likes of lilac, poppy, rose and violet, to have a colour named after it; a plant so naturalised in southern Wales that it has long earned its own name in Welsh, dafnau cochion; and a plant that permits a puerile prat to pun on the correct German pronounciation of ‘Fuchs’ – before, unable to resist the temptation, he fuchs off.

Pictures: Flower Homes; Gaynor’s Flora