Guide to Fuchsia Cultivation & History
Like tiny dancers dressed in fancy skirts, Fuchsia flowers dangle from upright shrubs in long blooming hedges and from trailing branches in hanging baskets and patio containers. The blossoms come in a broad range of colors, including oranges, pinks (rosy whites to deep magentas), purples, and reds.
Fuchsias are practical as well as pretty if you are intent on attracting hummingbirds. Raising plants for hummingbird gardening is a passion at Flowers by the Sea Farm. It’s one of the key reasons why we began offering a broad variety of Fuchsias in 2020. Here is our FBTS Guide to Fuchsia Cultivation & History to help you succeed with this lovely genus.
Sometimes the botanical names of plants are also their best-known common names. That’s the case with plants from the Fuchsia genus. Yet you may have noticed that some nurseries or informational sites about Fuchsias often add the old common name “lady’s eardrops,” which is based on the flowers looking like pendant-style earrings.
Some sources use the name Lady’s Eardrops specifically to refer to hybrids related to the South American native Fuchsia magellanica, a species that is also commonly called Hardy Fuchsia. Although F. magellanica hybrids withstand cooler temperatures than tropical Fuchsias, they don’t survive frost. So “hardy” is a bit of a misnomer.
The Fuchsia genus, which is part of the evening primrose family (Onagraceae) and is primarily native to the Western Hemisphere, encompasses about 110 species. Their homelands range from temperate to tropical, and most are native to South America while others come from the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central America. Four Eastern Hemisphere species, including F. excorticata, are endemic to New Zealand and Tahiti.
In general, Fuchsias love moderate temperatures and moist air, such as in their native cloud forests and humid oak-pine forests of mountains from Mexico through Central America and South America. Most species are native to the Andes from Venezuela down to the southern tips of Argentina and Chile. Some are located in a mountainous area along the southeast edge of Brazil.
The 1982 journal article The Mexican and Central American Species of Fuchsia (Onagraceae) Except for Sect. Encliandra is a helpful resource about most of the northernmost native species. It also provides some history about how and when Mexican and Central American Fuchsias made their way to Europe. Authors Dennis E. Breedlove, Paul E. Berry, and Peter H. Raven published their study in Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden (volume 69, issue 1, pages 209 – 234).
Distribution maps of the genus in its known locations are available at the website of Fuchsia Research International. Although the organization closed in 2008, the website (under the ownership of new unidentified owners) still is online.
Outside their native habitat, most Fuchsias grow well where moderate humidity and temperatures prevail, such as along the coasts of California and the Pacific Northwest, the Mid-Atlantic, Ireland, the United Kingdom, and parts of Europe.
It’s difficult to nurture Fuchsias in areas where summer heat is extreme. Dry conditions are another whammy unless you water and mist the plants more than once a day or have a climate-controlled greenhouse.
At FBTS, we grow many hybrid Fuchsia shrubs. Some are trailing types suitable for hanging baskets and planters. Others are upright varieties that are lovely grown as accents, borders, or deciduous hedges.
We carefully select hybrids that not only are beautiful but also show staying power when properly cultivated. Many are historical varieties, such as the 1896 Fuchsia ‘Balkonkonïgin’, a trailing type with a German name meaning “balcony queen.” An upright example of an historic hybrid we grow is Fuchsia ‘Prince of Orange’ by British plant breeder Edward Richard Rupert George Banks (try to give that name to a Fuchsia!) in 1872.
The lineage of most hybrid Fuchsias is foggy regarding their wild ancestors. Yet we can trace a few of ours back to at least one of their parent species, like the 2011 Fuchsia ‘Change of Heart’, which is related to mite-resistant F. regia. One of our tallest hybrids, created in 1940 by plant breeder Victor Reiter Jr., is Fuchsia ‘Fanfare’. Its long, slender red and orange blossoms are connected to mite-resistant F. denticulata.
Aside from its dangling filament of anthers and pollen-coated stigma, the structures of a Fuchsia flower are its tube, an outer skirt-like calyx, and an inner corolla (or underskirt). The number of corolla petals help classify it as a single (4 petals), semi-double (5 to 7 petals), or double (8 or more). FBTS Fuchsias range from singles to doubles.
Many Fuchsias are tender perennials in parts of their nonnative range where winter temperatures are moderate and frost is rare. Some grown at FBTS tolerate the winter chill of USDA Zone 7 (an average low of 0 degrees F), which means their roots generally can survive periodic freezes.
In areas where winter is cold, a heavy blanket of leaf mulch is good for protecting in-ground plantings. If you live where frost seldom occurs, it may be possible to protect containerized Fuchsias by temporarily bringing them indoors when conditions get frigid. But most gardeners in cold winter regions simply grow Fuchsias annuals due to their beauty, rapid growth, long bloom, and hummingbird appeal.
Whether planting Fuchsias as perennials or annuals, here are some growing conditions to consider.
Soil. Successful cultivation of Fuchsias for borders or hedges requires vegetable garden-type soil that is loamy, fertilized, and enriched with compost. For Fuchsias grown in containers, such as in hanging baskets, you need a loose, airy potting mix that holds moisture but drains well so it doesn’t become soggy.
Fertilizer. Fuchsias need supplemental feeding. But before providing the simplest advice we can about how to fertilize after planting, it’s important to note that you should never apply such products when a Fuchsia’s soil is dry. That’s the rule even if you are giving it liquid fertilizer.
One of the easiest methods for feeding Fuchsias is to add pelletized, slow-release fertilizer about once every three months. Dig the pellets in to a shallow depth around in-ground plantings. For potted plants, firm them in on top of the potting mix. Time the application and use the quantities prescribed by the manufacturer of the brand you purchase.
Some Fuchsia gardeners prefer frequent applications of diluted liquid fertilizer. Here is an excellent, in-depth article on liquid feeding and watering by R. Theo Margelony of Portland, Oregon’s Fuchsietum Garden and website.
Sun and Moisture. Most Fuchsias prefer a combination of full sun and partial shade. In regions where afternoons are intensely hot, the best locations offer morning sun and afternoon shade. Once again, if you live where humidity and precipitation are low, it's important to water twice daily and mist foliage.
Whether you want to overwinter a Fuchsia indoors or grow one as a houseplant, we don’t recommend it unless you have a sunny, climate-controlled greenhouse room. During winter, they need temperatures of about 45 degrees F at night and 55 degrees during the day.
Another difficulty is that from late autumn through winter, you have to avoid the temptation to water a lot. This is because Fuchsias require a long period of dormancy.
Botanists think that flowering plants first emerged about 60 million years ago with the Magnolia family (Magnoliaceae). That’s 5 million years after the dinosaurs became extinct.
The Fuchsia genus appears to be much younger. In 2013, the American Journal of Botany published a study titled A fossil Fuchsia (Onagraceae) flower and an anther mass with in situ pollen from the early Miocene of New Zealand. It talks about the discovery of a “fossilized Fuchsia-like flower” dating back about 23 million years when saber-toothed cats roamed Earth.
Leap forward to the late seventeenth century on Hispaniola, the Caribbean island once split by two colonial powers — France (Haiti) and Spain (the Dominican Republic). At that time, France had funded three voyages to the Caribbean to discover and gain access to natural resources.
Catholic monk Father John Plumier (1646-1704) served as a botanist during all three expeditions and, in 1693, discovered “a plant having bright orange blooms” in Hispaniola. Although his specimens were lost in a shipwreck, Plumier’s sketches and notes were on another ship and survived. In 1703, he published his drawings and the botanical name he gave the plant — Fuchsia triphylla flore coccinea. The genus name honors German botanist Leonard Fuchs (1501 – 1566). Triphylla denotes its three leaves, and coccinea its red berries. Eventually, Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus (1707 -1778) shortened the name to Fuchsia triphylla.
By 1748, Scottish gardener Philip Miller was growing F. triphylla at Great Britain’s Chelsea Physic Garden and gave a detailed explanation about its propagation by seed in the third edition of his book The Gardener’s Dictionary. Physic gardens focused primarily on plants that were studied for their potential medicinal qualities.
By 1789 two more species of Fuchsias — F. coccinea and F. magellanica — had reached London and entered cultivation in one of the world’s first commercial nurseries — The Vineyard at Hammersmith. For years, confusion clouded identification of the plants as distinct species according to a report by British botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817 – 1911) published in the Linnean Society journal Botany (volume 10, page 458) in 1869.
By 1830, additional types of Fuchsias had reached Britain and Europe from Mexico and Central America. According to Breedlove, Berry, and Raven, these plants included F. fulgens from Mexico and F. splendens from Guatemala and were “purportedly involved in many of the early hybridizations with strains of F. magellanica Lam.” They also note that French nurseries were cultivating F. paniculata from Guatemala by 1847.
Hybridization of Fuchsias in the Old World became so popular that it was difficult to keep track of which parent species hybridists crossed to create new types. Many of these hybrids reached San Francisco by 1854. Due to a coastal climate perfect for the plants’ needs, their popularity blossomed from the Pacific Northwest down to the tip of Southern California for more than a century.
In its July 2006 article Fuchsias Rise Again in the Bay Area, Pacific Horticulture notes that European production of Fuchsias and other ornamental plants declined from “the beginning of World War I until long after World War II” when greenhouses were needed for growing food.
However, the article explains, many of the old hybrids were rescued in 1930 when “a delegation of the newly formed American Fuchsia Society traveled to Europe to collect hybrid fuchsias in gardens there.”
According to Pacific Horticulture, 48 of the 51 cultivars survived an ocean voyage back to America where they were nurtured at Berkeley Horticultural Nursery and the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley.
Fuchsiamania was rampant in Berkeley by the 1950s when an annual Fuchsia show featuring new hybrids and classes on cultivation at the nursery fed the West Coast passion for Fuchsias.
But popularity of the genus faded for two decades beginning in 1981 when the South American Fuchsia gall mite (Aculops fuchsiae) arrived. As Pacific Horticulture explains, the mites twisted “stems, leaves, and flowers into nearly unrecognizable masses.”
Fortunately, a movement began early in the twenty-first century to seek old and new Fuchsia hybrids that are better at defying the mites. Also, gardeners have learned that vigilant trimming is an excellent way to control a problem that likely will never disappear.
Galls are swollen growths on a Fuchsia’s buds, leaves, or stems. Sometimes they look red and hairy. Inside, baby gall mites feed on plant tissues before emerging as adults ready to lay eggs.
A good offense is a gardener’s best defense against the spread of this pest, according to a January 2012 American Fuchsia Society blog post. It recommends checking your Fuchsias regularly to remove any galls as they develop. Don’t put the refuse in your compost heap; bag it. Also, don’t expect to totally eliminate them, because that will surely drive you mad.
Where there are pests, there are also beneficial garden creatures such as bees and hummingbirds that make our landscapes and vegetable gardens flower. Growing flowering plants rich in nectar, such as Fuchsias, encourages pollinators to buzz around your garden and make it abundant.
Scientific research hypothesizes that native plants have coevolved with native pollinators. As previously mentioned, Fuchsias are mainly pollinated by hummingbirds (Trochilidae) which only live in the Western Hemisphere. In contrast, Eastern Hemisphere Fuchsias are pollinated by species in the honeyeater bird family (Meliphagidae), which have shorter beaks and mostly are bigger than hummingbirds.
But what about the longtime European love affair with the genus? Neither hummingbirds nor honeyeaters help Fuchsias there, so scientists theorize that insects do the job. Moths may be one such helper based on a May 2020 article in Smithsonian. It features a photo by David Tipling of the African migratory Silver Y (beet moth) feasting on Fuchsia nectar at night. Also, blog posts by some British gardeners report native bees (kinds that don’t live in colonies) pollinating Fuchsias.
Gardening is an ongoing process that requires time and attention to keep plants healthy and attractive. It’s also a healthy process for gardeners, because time spent in the garden is time when we smooth out our day’s frustrations.
But what can you do when part of your frustration concerns problems in the garden? You can contact FBTS. We gladly share information about all the plants we grow, answer questions directly, and also publish a wealth of information in our online catalog and Everything Salvias Blog. Salvias are the true sages and our main specialty, but we also have lots of sage advice to offer about growing Fuchsias.