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FUCHSIAS: A BOUNTY OF BLOOM

The genus Fuchsia belongs in the family Onagraceae.  This family also contains many other free-flowering plants such as gaura, california fuchsia, evening primrose, clarkia and fire weed (Gaura, Zauschneria, Onagraceae, Clarkia and Epilobium).  Fuchsia are found in the wild in Central and South America, New Zealand and Tahiti.       

When you consider the volume and longevity of bloom on a well-grown fuchsia, it is a pity that most gardeners in North America can only reliably grow a small percentage of the more than one hundred species and thousands of hybrids available.  Here in the Pacific Northwest we are blessed with moderate weather and luckily can winter hundreds of the hardiest hybrids, as well as a handful of species in the garden. Our resident hummingbirds rely on many of them for their nectar.

SPECIES

Fuchsia magellanica and its many selections and forms are the hardiest plants in the genus.  Although these plants may not have large flowers, they certainly do produce their delicate red and purple bloom in great profusion.  There are several forms with colorful foliage that make exceptional landscape plants.  Fuchsia magellanica 'Aurea' and 'Tricolor' should be at home in any Zone 7 garden.  The former has yellow gold leaves that turn brighter with more sunlight; the latter's leaves are a mix of pink, green and white which grows much pinker with more sun.  The form Fuchsia magellanica 'Globosa' has surprised us with its drought tolerance.  We discovered this after realizing how well the plant thrives outside the boundary of our watering system.

Coming from the same botanical section as F. magellanica (Section Quelusia),  Fuchsia regia has proven hardy as well.  This Brazillian species has become an immense plant in our garden.  In the wild it can reach 15 feet or higher once it takes on a vining habit.  Our plant forms a cascading standard.  We imagine it would make a magnificent plant to drape over a wall or spill down a bank.

Fuchsia hatschbachii is fairly new to the trade.  We have grown it for about five years.  We have been surprised at its suckering nature.  It is also much taller than we imagined, reaching above the heads of most humans.  The hummingbirds do not mind this fact at all.  The red and purple flowers can point either downward or arch outward.  Either way, the hummers work them for their nectar.

Coming from New Zealand, Fuchsia procumbens is the antithesis of the above species.  It makes a delightful, not immodest, ground cover.  The unusual tiny flowers have orangish tubes with green lobes.  Their amazing blue stamens are exerted from within.  There is an attractive variegated form called 'Mary Miller'.  This species sets its red berries readily.

HARDY HYBRIDS

Western hybrids have been in existence since the first species were introduced to Europe in the late 1700's.  Many of the hybrids are of unknown ancestry and the majority are not hardy for much of North America.  That said, there are still hundreds of hybrids that have been proven hardy for our area.  (The Northwest Fuchsia Society has compiled a list of the fuchsias that are hardy in the Pacific Northwest and we refer you to their list at www.nwfuchsiasociety.com.)

Fuchsia flowers come in a variety of colors.  Sometimes, as in the all-white 'Hawkshead', the entire flower is one color but, in general, flowers are bicolored.  The flower tube and sepals at the top of the flower are often a different color than the corolla which forms a skirt or bell underneath.  This contrast is one of the charms of the hardy hybrids.  'Peter Pan' for instance has a pink tube and sepals and an orchid purple corolla.  'Black Prince' has a bright red tube and sepals above a dark purple corolla.  There are other beauty points.  Some fuchsias, like the soft pink 'Cloverdale Pearl', have green tips on their sepals; some, like 'Peppermint Stick', have multicolors in their double corollas.

Most books describe fuchsias in terms of class, flower size and height.  Class indicates whether the flowers are single, double or tubular.  Occasionally flowers are described as semi-double.  Examples of single flowered fuchsias are 'Checkerboard' and 'Mrs. Popple''Lena' is considered a semi-double, while 'Lena Dalton' is a true double.  The flowers of 'Thalia' are tubular.

In general, there are four sizes of flower - very small, small, medium or large.  The smallest flowers are less than ¾-inch across.  We have not found the smallest flowered fuchsias such as 'Isis' reliably winter hardy.  Small flowers are up to an inch-and-a-half in width.  The flowers of 'David' are considered small.  Medium flowers are up to two-and-a-half inches wide.  The abundant flowers of 'Display' fall in this range.  Large indicates any flower larger than medium.  The huge flowers of 'Double Otto' certainly meet this description.

The height of a plant can be low, medium or tall.  'Lord Byron' forms a low mound measuring about 15 inches in height.  Standing at 2 feet, 'Display' definitely can be judged a medium.  Tall 'Cardinal' amazes us as it reaches up to 6 feet. 

One other factor in choosing a fuchsia is habit.  Many are erect and useful as shrubs in the border.  Some are more lax in habit and tend to sprawl.  These latter are suitable for hanging baskets, containers and for draping over walls and down slopes.  Many gardeners like to shape or espalier fuchsias.  We have found that we are happiest letting them take their natural shapes in the garden.

NOTES ON CARE

All of the notes here are meant for gardeners in the Pacific Northwest where our climate allows us to grow fuchsias in full sun.  Even though we do get quite warm in August in the Portland area, our heat is not usually long-lived and so, if fuchsias are watered during the summer, they do not show any sign of damage from the sun.  We actually find that sun is essential in promoting plentiful bloom.  At the least, give fuchsias all-morning sun.  They will reward you.

When we started growing fuchsias in our gardens eighteen years ago, there was not a lot of information available about the winter hardiness of these plants.  We had to learn by trial and error.  Many books and other sources now recommend planting fuchsias two or three inches deeper than you would most woody plants.  This protects their roots from freezing during winter.  At our nursery we did not bury our plants deep and, with a few exceptions, have not had many losses.  However, we do think this is a good precaution to take.  Plants will probably emerge a little later if they are planted deeper.

In general, we have found through experience that it is best to cut garden fuchsias back in the early spring after they show new growth.  Many gardeners like to tidy up their gardens in the fall.  We ask them to defer fuchsia cleanup until the early spring for two reasons.  First, the old wood reminds gardeners where their plants are and stops them from accidentally digging out what might look like a weed when first emerging.  Second, we have found that some forms of fuchsias resent being cut back early and will suffer and even die prematurely from this activity.  We do not know the science behind this experience but nature has taught us to be good pupils.  We pass her lessons on to you.

NOTES ON COMPANION PLANTS

Hardy fuchsias are among the most important ornamental plants that we grow at Joy Creek Nursery for good late summer to early autumn display.  Not only do the bright rich colors of their flowers complement the ornamental grasses, their colors are also ideal when planted near shrubs that are gradually reddening and yellowing in the autumn.  Many hydrangeas turn wonderful fall colors if they have gotten some sun during the growing season.  We have fuchsias near our hydrangea patch and admire how the two plants both echo and complement each other.  We also combine the dark purple penstemons with the orange and salmon colored fuchsias.

Another way to look at fuchsias is too think of them in combination with small evergreen shrubs (both broad-leafed and coniferous) that do a wonderful spring bloom but fade into the background later in the season.  Fuchsias star when many of these shrubs have ceased to dazzle.  When winter comes on, the evergreen shrubs take center stage again.

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