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Putting all politics aside, Zhongguo (a historical name which has been translated as "Central State" or "Middle Kingdom") and its cultures have shaped our daily lives a lot more than many of us realise.
Consider the extraordinary domination of the world by European nations and their former colonies (including the US) over the last 500 years. It’s no exaggeration to say that it wouldn’t have happened without the Chinese "Four Great Inventions" - the compass, gunpowder, paper and printing.
Other things invented in China include porcelain, fired bricks, lacquer, bristle toothbrushes, chain drives, dental amalgam, drilling rigs, restaurant menus, the wheelbarrow, rockets, seismometers, gas lighting, oil wells — the list goes on and on.
What about Chinese plants? The forests of Central China have given us zhong hua, the Chinese gooseberry (Actinidia species). Following careful breeding of the vines in New Zealand, a name change to kiwifruit in 1959 and clever marketing, people all over the world call the fruits kiwis and associate them with this country.
It’s no surprise that mandarin oranges and 400 species of bamboo come from China. Less well known is the Chinese origin of all those lovely apricots, peaches and nectarines grown in Central Otago. A lot of the camellias and rhododendrons in southern gardens have some Chinese ancestry too.
Which all brings me to Burlington St in central Dunedin. It’s that short, thin street that links Queens Gardens to Moray Pl — more of a connection than a destination. Just below the street’s intersection with Moray Pl, there’s a wall of exposed rock beside the narrow footpath. Very few plants can handle the harsh conditions on a vertical rock face. Here and there, a few daisy plants and ferns eke out a precarious existence.
How bizarre it is then to suddenly come across a plant with long, fleshy leaves and cones of beautiful, purplish flowers, apparently thriving on a sharp vertical corner of the rock face. Defying the impossible conditions with a flourish is a plucky butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii), also known as summer lilac or orange-eye. This botanical magician hails from the inland Chinese provinces of Sichuan (famous for its giant pandas) and Hubei (with its now well-known capital, Wuhan), as well as parts of Japan. The Catholic priest, Fr Armand David (1826-1900), was the first European to note and report the plant — hence the use of davidii in the botanical name. Linnaeus chose to call the genus Buddleja after English botanist Adam Buddle (1662-1715), who never actually saw any of the plants named in his honour!
After the pretty and wonderfully fragrant flowers of butterfly bushes have faded, each plant can release up to three million tiny, light seeds from the dried conical flower clusters. No wonder we see the shrubs sprouting up all over the place on vacant sections, industrial land and patches of gravel. Most of these self-sown butterfly bushes are very leggy plants a couple of metres high. If you doubt that they can become small trees though, check out the old, multi-trunked specimen beside the footpath on North Rd nearly opposite Arnold St. It’s about 4 metres high and has solid trunks that are about 30cm through.
A few paces up the street from the Burlington butterfly bush there’s a short poem inscribed on a metal plaque. Adapted from a poem by Thomas Ford, the words were found written in a local building many years ago:
There is a lady sweet and kind
was never a face so pleased my mind.
I did but see her passing by
yet I will love her till I die.
She passed this way,
charming the morning,
long years ago.
For me, the poem could just as easily be about the tough, little butterfly bush nearby when it blossoms every summer.
- Mark Clark