Feeling powerless against mighty Gunnera

THE yard is carpeted in bronze and chestnut beech leaves.

It was a gradual transformation until last night, when the wind gusted and we woke to find the view of gravel outside the window transformed.

As I walked around the corner of the house to the front yard, a sudden blast sent hosts of leaves scudding horizontally at me like a veritable snowstorm.

When the sun or a shower touches this leaf carpet, it’s truly golden; when it’s dry, small whirlwinds lift and swirl them like mad dancers.

Last week, my wife got busy with a bazooka of a leaf-blower/ leaf-sucker device and shifted barrowloads, but there were still truckloads to come, and then it rained and the leaves would no longer blow.

However, the wind last night and this morning is already drying them, so the bazooka will be in action again.

Over the diesel tank, like a huge, green umbrella, stands a single surviving leaf of gunnera, a giant rhubarb-like plant from South America. Its companions have all been wind-broken by the storm.

The tall, fat stems, with thorns shaped like rose-thorns — but not hard and vicious —break easily.

We’ll chop out more stems now that winter’s here and we can get at them: the roots beneath lie like felled tree limbs thicker than a human thigh but, being watery, almost sodden, are many times heavier.

We chop them with an axe in winter, and scalp most of the pink, feathery flower heads in spring. Exotic as they are, and of great interest to visitors, they absolutely have to be controlled.

God forbid that gunnera should ever gain a foothold in the Burren or any other National Park. It has devastated the indigenous plants in Achill and along the North Mayo coast.

We inherited ours when we bought the house and, like everyone who sees it for the first time, were awed by the size of the leaves “so big that one alone could hide a small car”.

I posed my toddler granddaughter on a single leaf for a few seconds (the leaves, stems and pollen can be abrasive) while I took a photo — a pixie from an Arthur Rackham fairytale illustration.

Gunnera is useful to hide the tank of domestic heating oil but if not curtailed will create a barrier that makes it impossible to reach the tank for refilling.

It is exotic, no doubt about it; it makes one’s garden an eye-catcher for passersby.

However, in the ideal conditions of a stream- side, with water abundant —in its native Chile, it is a waterside side plant —it spreads with rhizomes through the earth and, above the surface, the horizontal roots that look like decaying fallen trees.

First step in stopping their gallop is to chop the roots into sections and rip them or crowbar them out of the ground to which they’re pinned by the rhizome roots beneath them. However, then, comes the lifting and disposal.

A section as long as one’s arm weighs a prodigious amount; liftable pieces can’t be longer than from one’s elbow to one’s finger tips. And, then, what to do with them?

A few years ago, I left a piece about the size and shape of a human head (excuse the simile) on a gravelled, unfrequented corner of our premises and found, the next year, that it had put up leaves the size of an exceptionally robust garden rhubarb. Roots pinned it to the ground.

There, it would have flourished, had I not revisited it and torn it out.

The only answer, it seems, is to isolate lengths of the trunks on impermeable surfaces, flagstones or, tarmac far from water.

In the Canary Islands, locals wanting to get rid of one of those huge, legally-protected Canary palm trees preventing them from extending their homes or gardens sometimes drill holes in them and leak in diesel oil which, they say, in time kills the tree.

I’m not sure if I want to try this, even after taking ensuring the diesel wouldn’t reach a watercourse.

If they don’t succumb to desiccation, maybe chopping fat trunks into 6in thick rounds and roasting them on the barbecue might work.

Meanwhile, a reader from Belgooly, Co Cork, tells me he has yellowhammers on his land and sees them daily.

They nest in the ditches but every year he finds nests destroyed by cats, discarded “Christmas-present cats” brought from the city and let loose in the country, Belgooly being within easy reach. Awful for the cats: but devastating for the scarce survivors of one of our prettiest bird species, now everywhere in decline.


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