History of Fuchsias

Slender, elegantly arching growth, neat foliage and dainty colourful, but not shrill-toned, pendent flowers are the hallmarks of the fuchsia. Few plants combine these character­istics so successfully or are so easy to grow, hence their popularity as pot plants for the home and greenhouse and as garden decoration.

Tennessee Waltz

Most of the fuchsias we grow today are man-made hybrids with fancy names; they are technically known as cultivars ‘ (cultivated varieties) to distinguish them from genuinely wild varieties. Thousands of cultivars have been raised during the past 150 years and it says much for the standards of the early breed­ers that there are today vintage fuchsias of 100 years old or more rubbing shoulders with the most recently produced ones. The same cannot be said, for example, of chrysanthemums and dahlias. These many fuchsia cultivars are derived from a mere handful of wild species. This is somewhat surprising when one realises how varied this large genus is. About 100 species are known, most of them from Mexico, south to Chile, but there are a few in the West Indies, Tahiti and New Zealand. A wide range of growth form is found, from small carpeters like F.procumbens to the tree-sized F.excorticata. Most species are shrubs, some evergreen, others de­ciduous. A few have tubers like a dahlia and some are epiphytic on mossy rocks and trees.

The first fuchsia to be named was F.triphylla. It was found on the West Indian Island of San Domingo (Haiti) by Father Charles Plumier (1646-1704), a French Franciscan monk, traveller and botanist. This intrepid missionary had, by 1690, visited several of the West Indian Islands recording the plants he saw with remarkably accurate drawings. He also revived the old custom of naming new plant genera after peo­ple, choosing Leonhart Fuchs to per­petuate the fuchsia. Fuchs (1501-66) was a German doctor/herbalist who held the Chair of Medicine at Tubingen University from 1535 to his death in 1566. Apart from Fuch­sia, he is best remembered today for

F. triphylla

his Herbal which is embellished with some excellent woodcut illustrations.

F.triphylla was described in 1703 but not introduced into cultivation for another 180 years. During this time all the familiar species which were to become the parents of our cultivars, were introduced. The years 1788-89 saw F. coccinea from Brazil and the similar but much hardier F.magellanica from Chile. F.fulgens came in 1830, F.corymbif- lora in 1840, F.decussata and F.den- ticulata in 1843-4. Several others were introduced during this time but only the above named have played a primary role as parents of the modern fuchsia cultivars.

At this point it is worthwhile briefly regarding the unique struc­ture of the fuchsia flower. It is divided into fours, not the com­monest occurrence among flowers in general; four sepals and petals joined to a bell or trumpet-shaped tube. This tube arises from an ovoid green ovary (which later became a juicy, edible-but insipid black-purple berry). There are eight slender sta­mens and a long club-tipped style. Unlike most other flowers, the sep­als are coloured or white, Sometimes with green tips. The tube can also be white or coloured. Fuchsia procum- bens is the only cultivated species with a yellow tube. Usually the four petals overlap to form a deep bell but in some species and cultivars they are flared out, like a ballet skirt. Their colouring is not very varied but embraces many subtle shades of red, pink, purple and white. Looking at the many popular cultivars it can be seen that some have short tubes, others longer ones. This characteris­tic above all others gives each culti- var its distinctive appearance, though the length and stance of sepals and flaring of petals all play their part in making each cultivar truly distinct.

Fuchsia magellanica ‘Riccartonii’

It seems fairly certain that the earliest fuchsia hybrids were made in Britain in the early years of the last century. F.magellanica and/or F.coccinea were the primary parents and the characters of these two species still shine out in many of the newest cultivars produced today. In 1832 the white-tubed, white- sepalled ‘Venus Victrix’ arose and though it is most likely simply a mutant of F. magellanica and not a purpose-made hybrid, it played a great part in the ancestry of white and near white cultivars. After 1830, F.fulgens, with its very long- tubed, red flowers, increasingly played its part in the many hybrids attempted.

By the middle years of last cen­tury most of the other familiar fuch­sia cultivar characteristics had occurred, namely double, semi­double and semi-erect flowers, variegated and golden foliage. From this era also come several cultivars that are just as valuable in today’s greenhouse and garden displays as more recently lauded ones. ‘Coralli- na’ was put on the market in 1844 and its low ground-covering habit assures its steady popularity and garden value. Equally hardy, ‘Chil- lerton Beauty’ followed in 1847 and the delightful little Tom Thumb’ in 1850. Then came the white and red, indispensably hardy ‘Mme Cornelis- son’ (1860), the upward-facing flo­wered ‘Bon Accorde’ (1861) and the semi-double ‘Lena’. Two of the finest foliage cultivars are also of this period, ‘Golden Treasure’ (1860) and ‘Cloth of Gold’(1863).

French and German breeders vied with the British during this period and from then on a flurry of culti­vars was released right up to the First World War.

Fuchsia magellanica' Gracilis versicolor’

 

Fuchsia coccinea

 

Mme Cornelissen

From then on there was a decline of interest in Britain and Europe. However, in the late 1920s the baton of interest was taken up by the Americans (in Cali­fornia) and from then on breeders there dominated the fuchsia scene. Happily, the flood of American culti­vars rekindled British interest, and, during the last 30 years, breeders here have again played a significant part in furthering the fuchsia’s popularity.

Interest in fuchsias is now world­wide where climatic conditions are suitable, as the list of societies and clubs devoted to its culture indi­cates. America started it off with the National Fuchsia Society (formerly American F.S.) in 1929. Britain fol­lowed in 1938, then came New Zea­land, Holland, Zimbabwe, Australia, Denmark, France and Germany. There is also much interest in Nor­way, Romania, Spain, Switzerland and Japan.

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