A spring visit Posted on May 28, 2015

Ambiguous robinia in Tokaj

A weekend in Hungary to see the Tokaji vineyards in their spring finery: hillside after hillside covered in files of the singular pale green of young vine-shoots. The shoots are three feet long, up to the top wire of the trellises, their flowerbuds visible, utterly vulnerable to a frost – unlikely in late May but still conceivable. And a horrible black hail-cloud sailed by this afternoon.

The village gardens and the forests on the hilltops are at their best: forests in their primitive state, a mixture of every imaginable species, unplanted, unthinned, seemingly impenetrable until you come to a stream winding down a shady valley, gardens brimming with pale flowers; irises and peonies the favourites. Roadsides are full of wild roses, pink campion, purple sage and blue vetch.

The forests have a problem, though: the invasion of robinia (or as we tend to call it) acacia. At our old home in the centre of France, in the Foret de Trançais, where the oak is supremely “prestigieux”, robinia crops up everywhere except deep in shady woods – and sometimes has a go even there. Every roadside is lined with it, suckering and seeding prodigiously. Its thorny progeny are good at self-defence. In May and June its masses of white blossom are popular with passers-by. Then its dreary little leaves dominate the rich mixture of textures and hues of the native trees.

How did it spread so far and so successfully? Presumably France had its equivalent to William Cobbett, who so enthused about the peerless value of this new import from America – named, by the way, after Jean Robin, director of the Paris Jardin des Plantes. Its timber makes the best fence- or vine-stakes, splitting easily and impervious to rot. There is even a fashion for using it for barrels, too, especially for sweet white wines. So farmers must have planted it, little thinking that soon it would be such a formidable weed.

What is odd in Hungary is that whole stretches if it have pink flowers: like tall lilac from a distance, and interspersed with the white of elder trees indisputably pretty. I consulted Bean online (so can you. Google ‘Bean’s Trees and Shrubs’ to get to the IDS website, where the whole of ‘Bean’ is available for consultation, free). Is there such a thing as a robinia species with pink flowers? No, is the answer. There is a nursery variety, R. x ambigua (a good name) decaisneana, produced in France nearly two hundred years ago. But how could this become a widespread wildling in Eastern Europe? I must do more digging.

Meanwhile in the country at large field after field, scattered among vineyard plots, are strange orchards of elder trees on short trunks, explosions of creamy-white blossom, in long straight rows. When you see a crop repeated country-wide at random the reason is usually a government subsidy. But what can Hungary do with so many elderberries?

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